Bright and Entertaining

By David A. Rosenberg

Hold on. Although it starts off with blurred focus, Goodspeed’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” gets closer to the bone as it moves along. The multiple Tony winner, which also won the coveted Pulitzer Prize, has lost some of its punch over the years. Yet, even though the show is a faint echo of the acerbic “Mad Men,” it still manages to be bright and entertaining, thanks to that brilliant Frank Loesser score.

What’s lacking is the bedrock of satire it once had. Rather, the production goes for franticness instead of subtlety, beginning with that deadening opening that has business types aimlessly wandering about the stage in rhythm. The effect draws focus from our upwardly mobile hero, a window-washer who aspires to a better life and whose first number, the title song, sets everything in gear.

Throwing sticks and stones at corporations is no longer either new or fun, not with those obscene Wall St. bonuses staring us in the face. Wisely, director Greg Ganakas doesn’t update the material. Here are pre-lib secretaries (“A Secretary is Not a Toy,” goes one song) not yet labeled as “administrative assistants.” Here’s the blonde bimbo who sleeps her way to the top. Here are the nerds, the backstabbers, the sycophants, the oh-so-whitebread types who inhabit the shining towers of capitalism.

Sorry, no blacks need apply – and probably “no” to a lot of others, even though one effeminate man creeps in. But, then, he’s the villain and the boss’ nephew so what can you expect?

Based on Shepherd Mead’s book of the same title, “How to Succeed” has an unbeatable pedigree. Loesser, who also wrote not only “Guys and Dolls” but “A Most Happy Fella” and “Where’s Charley?” before his untimely death (age 59), comes up with winner after winner, from the pulsating “Coffee Break” to the romantic “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” to the egocentric “I Believe in You” to the rousing gospel “Brotherhood of Man” which, finally, stops the show. The libretto is by classic funnyman Abe Burrows, with assists from Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert.

This is also the show which put Robert Morse (coincidentally or not, a mainstay of “Mad Men”) into the musical comedy pantheon. If it doesn’t do the same for Brian Sears, the current J. Pierrepont Finch, blame it on the fact that “Succeed” is in East Haddam, not New York. (A new Broadway production, starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, opens in the spring.) Sears, charming and ingratiating, channels Morse’s interpretation but navigates the shoals between lovable and hateful on his own, maintaining spectator sympathy.

Tom Deckman is Finch’s chief rival, Bud Frump, the boss’ nephew, underplaying the role perhaps to suggest Frump’s underhanded ways. Nicolette Hart is a delight in the bimbo role of Hedy LaRue, while Aaron Serotsky creates a real character, not a cartoon, as head of personnel. Many of the others are trying hard – very hard.

Adrian W. Jones’ sleek scenery, Paul Miller’s vivid lighting and Gregory Gale’s crisp costumes help. But who made the decision to squash the joke in “Paris Original” with a chiffon fashion show right out of “Roberta”?

Choreographer Kelli Barclay pulls out all stops in “Brotherhood,” a number that is more biting and amusing than much that goes before. Ganakas and company favor pleasantness over irreverence, going easy on malice and pushing the soft pedal. By the way, the soothing recorded voice that narrates the manual from which Finch learns his devious ways is our outgoing Sen. Dodd. He has another career in front if him.

This review by Dave Rosenberg appeared in The Hour, Thurs., Oct. 28

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