"Succeed" a Success
By Geary Danihy
The last bit of dialogue in Goodpseed Opera House’s production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” has secretary Rosemary Pilkington vow to ultimate corporate climber J. Pierrepont Finch that she would love him no matter what his job, even if he was president of the United States. This prompts corporate bigwig J. B. Biggley to call for his secretary to send a letter to the White House. The message: “Jack, watch out!”
That “Jack” says it all about this good-hearted, tuneful, wittily directed trip down memory lane to a time when the glass ceiling was still firmly in place, secretaries were, in fact, “toys,” a lifetime career with one company was still possible and the boys in the gray flannel suits were blissfully unaware they were sexist pigs.
Based on the book by Shepherd Mead, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstsock and Willie Gilbert, “How to Succeed” is firmly rooted in the early 1960s, a time when rumblings could be heard in the distance but, if you held your hands over your ears monkey-fashion, you could believe that the “American Decade” of the 50s would last forever.
Director Greg Ganakas has wisely made no effort to “update” the production but rather has chosen to play it straight with no theatrical winks or nudges to suggest that we’ve come a long way from the hi-jinks on stage, and the cast is just about letter-perfect. Yes, they are portraying stereotypes, but they do it with style and gusto.
Too young to have seen Robert Morse as Finch in the original Broadway production, Brian Sears gives every indication of having taken more than a peek at the 1967 film version, which also starred Morse. He has Morse’s mannerisms down pat: the shoulder shrug, the impish smirk, hands and fingers providing visual punctuation to lines and lyrics. This, at first, seems a bit off-putting, but it provokes a question: is there really any other way to play this role? Possibly, but Sears’ performance establishes a comfort level that lets the audience know this particular production will deliver as advertised.
Playing against him as the secretary who sees Finch as her ticket to a mansion in New Rochelle, Natalie Bradshaw gives us a somewhat plastic Rosemary Pilkington, with just a few too many “pause-for-pose” moments. Of all the cast, she seems least into the gestalt of the production.
Perhaps Bradshaw’s apparent aloofness is merely a matter of comparison, for the rest of the cast members so totally embrace the kitsch inherent in their roles that you are forced to realize that Rosemary is the only “straight” character Burrows wrote for the musical; everyone else has some signature shtick to play with.
There’s J. B. Biggley (Ronn Carroll), the blustering, hen-pecked head honcho who knits to release tension, is a fanatic “Groundhog” alumnus and sugar-daddy to Miss Hedy LaRue (Nicolette Hart), ex-cigarette girl totally at sea in the secretarial pool. Their duet, “Love from a Heart of Gold” in the second act is priceless, with Hart hitting, or rather missing, notes that send chills down the spine.
Then there’s the office rat, Bud Frump, played with panache by Tom Deckman, who lets no opportunity pass to play to the audience. That he does so with unmitigated glee quiets any possible complaints of over-acting. A bit more subtle, but just as engaging, are Erin Maguire as Smitty, Rosemary’s world-wise (and weary) friend and confidante (it’s a female sidekick role that Maguire totally understands) and Mr. Biggley’s secretary, Miss Jones (Jennifer Smith).
If you want to see just how meticulously Ganakas and choreographer Kelli Barclay have prepared this outstanding cast, watch Smith in the final number, “Brotherhood of Man,” as she prepares to take center stage. She’s stage left behind a desk as most of the male members of the cast are singing and dancing, but she is listening, in character, and you can see the “Beat” slowly take hold of her, dissolving her straight-laced demeanor note by note.
The action of the musical goes from bustling city street to corporate building foyer to the offices, executive washroom and boardroom of the World Wide Wicket Corporation, all accomplished by scenic designer Adrian W. Jones with one basic set of corporate metal and glass and a lot of sliding desks and metal frames. The amazing thing is that, save for a rather cluttered television studio scene, it all works so well, so much so that the seamless scene changes were a topic of discussion amongst audience members during intermission.
“How to Succeed…” is a straightforward, in-your-face, Broadway musical comedy, offered up with no apologies, and I can’t think of a reason why anyone would ask for one.
“How to Succeed…” runs through Nov. 28. For wickets…oops…for tickets or more information call 860-873-8668 or go to www.goodspeed.org.