September 8, 2011

SHOWBUZZDAILY BROADWAY JOURNAL: “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Few things bring audiences as much joy as the sight of a well-known actor or actress revealing a side of their talent that’s never been seen before.  (It’s not just general audiences, either–those roles become instant favorites for Oscar nominations and wins.)  It can be as simple as Halle Berry, Julia Roberts or Nicole Kidman deglamorizing themselves for Monster’s Ball, Erin Brockovich and The Hours, and as immense as Daniel Day-Lewis’ paralysis in My Left Foot or Robert DeNiro’s weight gain in Raging Bull.  The most reliable type, though, may be the revelation that a dramatic performer can sing or dance:  Amy Adams in Enchanted, Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia!, Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, Rene Zellweger in Chicago… the list goes on.  The same is true on Broadway, of course–think Antonio Banderas in Nine, and practically everyone who’s starred in the revival of Chicago;   Right now, the star with unexpected abilities is Daniel Radcliffe, in the new (and not particularly necessary) revival of Frank Loesser’s HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING.

Radcliffe is, and probably always will be, known above all for the role that he spent his entire childhood playing, but Harry Potter was never called upon to sing or dance away from evil.  As J. Pierrepont Finch, the outrageously ambitious protagonist of the 50-year old musical, Radcliffe has to do both, and while his singing voice is merely decent, the man can dance.  Numbers like “Grand Old Ivy” and “The Brotherhood of Man” pretty much bring down the house, in large part because of his footwork.  
For those unfamiliar with How to Succeed, the title itself refers to a handbook used by Finch as he rapidly climbs the ranks at Worldwide Wickets, moving from window washer, to the mailroom, to a junior executive office, to the notice of boss J.B. Biggley (John Larroquette), and so forth.  Along the way, secretary Rosemary (Rose Hemingway) falls madly in love with him, and he struggles between the pulls of ambition and love, not to mention the competition posed by Biggley’s evil nephew Bud Frump (Christopher J. Hanke).  The book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert provides the mildest sort of corporate satire, although it has an off-hand structural skill, effectively conveying the story as needed between Loesser’s songs, that seems impressive today.
Rob Ashford’s production is pleasant enough entertainment–he’s a better fit for this material than he was for last year’s revival of Promises, Promises, which was more character-and dialogue-based.–and Loesser’s songs are always a pleasure to hear, but there’s nothing revelatory going on at the Hirschfeld Theatre.  Ashford seems to have approached the material with the viewpoint that it should be played entirely as it would have been in 1961, with no allowance made or irony taken to acknowledge changes in society since then.  So there are no italics around the worship of corporate success, or the sexism the show takes for granted (the song title “Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm” says it all), and no interest in Mad Men-like commentary about the social revolutions that were just a few years away.  Radcliffe’s performance is similarly straightforward, even more so than Robert Morse’s somewhat maniacal one in the original version (at least as preserved in the 1967 film) and Matthew Broderick’s in the 1995 Broadway revival, both of whom took a more cartoonish approach.  Given the broad nature of the material, a taste of that might have been a good idea, both for Radcliffe and for Hemingway; the actors who broaden their performances, notably Larroquette, Hanke and Tammy Blanchard as the self-explanatory Hedy LaRue, fare better.

How to Succeed is an enjoyable 2 1/2 hours, brightly choreographed by Ashford and designed by a team that includes Derek McLane (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Howell Binkley (lighting), supporting a talented, hard-working cast.  Is it worth $132 for a standard ticket?  Probably not, but discounts are available.  And there is a kick in finding out that The Boy Who Lived is also The Actor Who Can Dance.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."