Should you go see How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at the Marriott Theatre? My answer is a qualified “yes.”
How to Succeed is very close to my heart for reasons I won’t bother with here. They’ll be in the next post, or as a comment on this one. So, unfortunately, I’m a picky know-it-all about the show. Let’s go through the good stuff first, then deal with the four gremlins.
This Pulitzer Prize winning musical deals with corporate America in the early 1960s. J. Pierrepont Finch, an ambitious window washer, uses a How To book to angle his way to the top. For fans of classic musicals, the score includes such Frank Loesser hits as I Believe in You and Brotherhood of Man. If played correctly, it is one of the four or five funniest musicals ever written. If played correctly. Meaning, give up any ideas of political correctness. It takes place in the sixties. Men were executives, women were secretaries or wives. Sexual behavior was not so much regulated as it was glorified. A) That’s the way it was; accept it and realize it’s a period piece. B) The authors are making fun of greed and sex. That’s a farce’s JOB. So if you dampen the venality, there’s no point in doing the show.
Even with the best of Finches, the show is usually stolen by Hedy LaRue and Bud Frump. Angela Ingersoll is the best Hedy LaRue I’ve ever seen. Playing a cartoon sex bomb, Ingersoll nails the three most important aspects of the character. One of these is comic timing.
Instead of going for the usual high pitched Marilyn-Monroe-from-Brooklyn imitation (or Carol Channing, as Maureen Arthur played it in the movie version), Ingersoll goes for a low, occasionally raspy cigarette voice that is perfect for the character. Polite society decrees that I must not mention the actress’s breasts in a review. But Angela Ingersoll is brilliant at making her tits funny; which is what the part calls for. I was not fond of Terry Hamilton’s J.B. Biggley. He kept throwing in a lot of childish shtick into a part that epitomizes Dignity. His dignity can’t be overthrown if Biggley isn’t dignified. Hamilton was solely a cartoon… whereas, when Hedy says, “Don't start getting sincere. That's not fair,” Ingersoll looked truly wounded and seemed about to cry. That’s how you give humanity to a cartoon character. I can’t say enough about Ingersoll’s performance, so I’ll move on.
As Bud Frump, Alex Goodrich had an interesting approach, which I’m still not sure if I liked or not. Frump, the villain, is usually the audience favorite because he’s so damned ineffective at villainy. He’s the Wile E. Coyote of musical comedy. But Goodrich, who is amazingly talented and nails all the jokes he is permitted to nail (more on that in the Gremlin section), gives Bud a snarling, roaring, venomous rage that is a bit off-key with the breeziness of the script. I didn’t hate it; but still… Anyway, Goodrich is mostly hilarious.
Choreographer Melissa Zaremba did some brilliant things. Cinderella, Darling worked for the first time since 1961 because A) nobody was going through the motions on a song they regarded as dated; they bought into it and B) the choreographer made it work by turning it into a pseudo-tap number instead of a static stand-there-and-sing comedy number. And I won’t spoil the moment in Brotherhood of Man when the executives realize they have to join in. Very funny (and subtle) stuff.
Jessica Naimy was a wonderful Rosemary, with the perfect angle on the character. Instead of a sweet (if pushy) doormat, Naimy’s Rosemary looked unflinchingly at her options – secretary or wife – and was just as hungry and conniving about her goal as Finch was about his.
Derek Hasenstab was great in the dual roles of Twimble and Womper, as were Jason Grimm as Bratt and Marya Grandy as Smitty. The ensemble was expert at their jobs. Felicia P. Fields as Miss Jones seemed to be very ill the night I saw it, so I’m going to cut her some slack.
1. Mentioned a bit earlier. How to Succeed is a period piece. If you can go along with the idea that sex and greed are funny, you’ll have a good time.
2. Pacing. Sigh. Just sigh. The first half of Act One is unbearable. There is a rehearsal technique called “speed through.” You just spit out the lines as fast as you can, no emotion, no communicating, no periods, no spaces between words. Don Stephenson directed the majority of Act One as a speed through. When Rosemary meets Finch, you can’t understand a word she says because she’s been directed to spitoutallthewordsasfastaspossible. And it’s not just her. Everybody does it. The message, I guess, is that we’re on a rocket ride! What it actually says is that the director has no confidence in the material and wants to get it over with. If he doesn’t care, why should we? Punchlines? What punchlines?
3. The Matthew Broderick revival has a lot to answer for. First – Miss Jones, who is now nearly always cast as a large black lady. Sigh. A black Finch… great. Or Rosemary. Or Hedy. Or Bud. Or Womper. But Miss Jones is the one character in How to Succeed who needs to be played by a middle-aged, starchy, repressed white woman, because anything else kills the joke in Brotherhood of Man – that the most unexpected person in the room suddenly decides that she is Mahalia Jackson. It’s not prejudice; it’s getting the joke right. It's like casting Sean Connery as Maxwell Smart. He's great at what he does, but he's wrong for the part.
Then, in this production, not only is the wrong person singing the song, but it is turned from gospel into scat. Bad scat, at that. It kills the double meaning of “Oh, brother!” if you don’t actually sing those words. Brotherhood is not just an eleven o’clock number – it’s a stinging satire of redemption, being sung by irredeemable people.
4. The second Matthew Broderick effect: miscasting Finch. Ari Martin is a wonderful leading man. But you don’t need a handsome, romantic leading man for Finch. He isn’t a cuddly puppy dog; he’s a slinky, sneaky cat pretending to be a cuddly puppy dog. This is one of those parts, like Harold Hill in The Music Man, where Comedy Comes First. If Finch can dance and carry a tune, great. But the primary factor of the triple threat is comedy. Not Matthew Broderick. Not Daniel Radcliffe. Ideally, you need a young Nathan Lane, who can take over the stage and defend it against all comers. It’s why Young Frankenstein is never going to work onstage – Frederick requires an equally triple-threat man when the comedy should lead. Ari Martin is a tremendous singer and dancer, and can play comedy. But he’s not an aggressive clown; and that’s a minus.
Bottom line: if you aren’t as picky as I am about How to Succeed, you’ll have a great time. When the amphetamines wear off enough to let the jokes land, there are a lot of laughs. The singing and dancing are expert. It’s a decent evening in the theatre.
HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING
When: Through Oct. 16
Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire
Tickets: $50 – $55
Info: (847) 634-0200
Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission