If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

GOODSPEED REVIVES A JAUNTY “HOW TO SUCCEED”

 

A solid two cheers for the Goodspeed Opera House and their deliciously dated revival of “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”.  While the production has a serious problem at its core (more about that later), the glorious Frank Loesser score is in fine voice here and, under the spiffy direction of Greg Ganakas, “How to Succeed” proves a diverting blast of nostalgia at the East Haddam playhouse.  Broadway is presenting its own revival next March with Daniel Radcliff in the central role, but this musical is good enough to see twice.

Based on the book by Shepherd Mead, “How To Succeed” is a gentle satire about the business world and how one ambitious window-washer rises, in record time, to the top of the corporate ladder.  J. Pierrepont Finch (Brian Sears) is the eager-beaver in question and his unending, single-minded drive propels this jaunty 1961 musical.  Loesser’s effervescent score (one of his best) includes such winners as “The Company Way”, “Been A Long Day”, “I Believe in You”, “A Secretary is Not a Toy” and “Brotherhood of Man”.  The witty, often hilarious book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert has fun exploring “Mad Men” territory with its chain-smoking, sexist corporate drones and their docile secretaries.  It is all perfectly politically incorrect.

As Finch proceeds up the ladder of success a lonely secretary, Rosemary (lovely Natalie Bradshaw), falls for him fast.  Finch barely notices, though, since he’s trying to out-think the devious Bud Frump (Tom Deckman in outrageous, scenery-chewing mode), the boss’s nephew who takes an instant dislike to the new competition.  The firm’s boss, J. B. Biggley (a priceless Ronn Carroll), is in full bluster as he tries to keep his buxom mistress (Nicolette Hart) on the payroll even though she has little, if any, secretarial skills.

This is all played fast, loose and with a great sense of merriment on Adrian W. Jones’ sliding glass and steel panel setting which adjusts smoothly for a number of office locales.  Paul Miller’s lighting also nicely reflects this fluorescent world and Gregory Gale’s nifty period clothes include an array of dangerously form-fitting outfits for Ms. Hart.

But that initial problem at Goodspeed remains a significant one.  The role of Finch is not easy and while Mr. Sears is a fine vocalist - especially with his signature tune, “I Believe in You” - it’s a performance that nearly torpedoes all the good will this production delivers.  The actor seems to be channeling the original Finch of the great Robert Morse channeling Jerry Lewis.  He mugs and squints relentlessly with a smarmy smile that is most off-putting.  It is hard to fathom why any woman – let alone the two called for by the script – would want to have anything to do with him.  On paper it’s true that Finch can be a cad, but we must see the charm beneath the pushy ambition, the admirable drive that makes us want him to succeed.  Sears fails to deliver those crucial qualities.

It should be noted, however, that my audience seemed to have less problem with the lead performer than me.  And, amazingly, the damn thing at Goodspeed still works!  Quite well, in fact.   It will be interesting to see Mr. Radcliff’s take on the same role next year.   Meanwhile, you only have a few more performances left before this mostly successful revival goes out of business.

 “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” continues at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 28th.  The theatre’s annual Thanksgiving Food Drive will be held the week of November 21st with a special “two for one” ticket offer on Monday, November 22nd at 2 and 7:30 pm.  For further information and ticket reservations call 860.873.8668 or visit online at www.goodspeed.org.

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

This review first appeared in Elm City Newspapers beginning November 17, 2010.


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