“How to Succeed…” Succeeds at Goodspeed

By Amy J. Barry

A musical is a complex mechanism with many interdependent parts and usually some of those parts—from writing to execution—are stronger than others. The Goodspeed’s production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is one of those pleasant surprises that works on all levels.

Sure, it doesn’t hurt that such current hit TV series as Mad Men and sitcoms as The Office are based on similar themes in How to Succeed…a 1961 satire of American industry—from mailroom mediocrity to ambitious corporate ladder climbers. Main character J. Pierrepont Finch, who works his way up from mailroom to boardroom, was originally performed by Robert Morse, who now plays the aging CEO, Bertram Cooper, in Mad Men.

But besides being able to capitalize on the current popularity of shows about the culture of the office, this revival of How to Succeed has lots going for it. The clever book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, and memorable melodies with snappy lyrics by Frank Loesser, are brought to life on the Goodspeed stage by Michael O’Flaherty’s splendid musical direction, Kelli Barclay’s fabulous choreography, and a director—Greg Ganakas—who knows how to take a truly impressive cast and pull it all together in a very even and energetic performance.

Brian Sears as Finch, bears an uncanny resemblance— physically and in his mannerisms and disposition—to the young Robert Morse, who starred in both the play and subsequent movie.

Starting out as a window washer, Finch uses the little guidebook, How to Succeed in Business… (Surprise! Senator Christopher Dodd is the voice of the book) and a lot of chutzpah and charm to work his way up via the elevators in the Worldwide Wicket Company— the musical is set in the various offices of a sleek and sophisticated 60s-modern high-rise building, seamlessly designed by Adrian W. Jones.

Sears captures the personality of the young Finch: ambitious and scheming, yet never mean or cutthroat—a corporate climber with a conscience. His strong, pleasing voice does justice to a wide range of numbers, starting with the confident “How to Succeed…” theme song. In the tongue-in-cheek “Grand Old Ivy” he pairs up with company CEO, J.B. Biggley. Ronn Carroll does a fine job portraying the blustering, gullible, closet-knitting top banana. A gorgeous rendition of the melodic “Rosemary” showcases the voices of both Sears and Natalie Bradshaw—Rosemary Pilkington, Finch's love interest.

Bradshaw is a delightful Rosemary, the secretary who has her sites on the handsome Finch the minute he walks in the door. Singing “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” she’s already picturing the American Dream come true— life in the suburbs—once she’s helped make Finch into a self-made man. In a wonderful little touch, a June Cleaver circle skirt suddenly replaces her tailored office attire and she pulls a hot pie out of a filing cabinet.

Despite the horribly sexist nature of the early ‘60s business world just prior to when the “women’s lib” movement got into full gear, confident women characters abound, including executive secretary Miss Jones. Jennifer Smith gives a zing to the role of the intimidating and eccentric office matriarch—and has a commanding voice in “A Secretary is Not a Toy” that make it clear—no matter what the men think—who’s really in charge.

In contrast to Miss Jones, Nicolette Hart shakes things up as the former cigarette girl, job-seeking Hedy LaRue, a brunette version of Marilyn Monroe, who may appear empty-headed, but knows how to work a situation to her advantage.

The tension builds in the powerfully choreographed and performed,  “I Believe in You.” While gargling in the executive men’s washroom, Finch sings, “To see the cool, clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth…” juxtaposed by a chorus of men led by Bud Frump (Tom Deckman)—Biggley’s smarmy nephew—harmonizing, “Gotta stop that man, gotta stop him or he’ll stop me.”

A meeting around the boardroom table where Frump has set Finch up to present a doomed-for-failure marketing campaign, has an eerie Last Supper feeling. But once again, with a bit of luck and quick thinking, Finch comes out the hero, exclaiming the virtues of his fellow workers in the closing number, “The Brotherhood of Man.”

Not nearly as dark as Mad Men with a fraction of the drinking and none of the smoking, Goodspeed’s production of How to Succeed is not saccharine and somehow manages to combine edgy satire with good-natured fun—not an easy feat.

Performances of How to Succeed…continue at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam through Nov. 28. For tickets and info, call 860-873-8668 or online at www.goodspeed.org.

This review appeared in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers Nov.3-4, 2010 and is online at Zip06.com.

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