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Friday, 25 July 2014 16:23

Success story: 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying' at Stages

Written by Chuck Lavazzi

The Details

  • Director: Michael Hamilton
  • Dates: July 18-August 17, 2014
Johmaalya Adelekan (Miss Jones) and the Cast of "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying"
Johmaalya Adelekan (Miss Jones) and the Cast of "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying" stagesstlouis.org / Peter Wochniak

You might think that a show like "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," which was widely regarded as a timely musical satire when it opened on Broadway in 1961, would now look pretty dated. And you'd be wrong, as the big, bright, and tremendously entertaining Stages production clearly demonstrates.

Based on a cynical comic novel by Shepherd Mead, the Pulitzer Prize–winning script (by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, based on an earlier nonmusical adaptation by the latter two) draws nearly all of its humor from satirical jabs at office politics, nepotism, managerial incompetence, petty empire-building, and other manifestations of corporate greed, stupidity, and general foolishness - manifestations that are, sadly, just as prevalent now as they were over fifty years ago.

"Coffee Break"
Photo: Peter Wochniak

Although originally drafted into the project somewhat against his will, Frank Loesser (one of the most musically literate composers of the post-World War II period) produced the smart and funny score, including one song, "I Believe In You," that has become a Great American Songbook classic. The Stages production retains all of the numbers from the 1961 original, including "Cinderella, Darling," the second act opener that was cut when the show was revived in 1995.

That makes for a long show—three hours with intermission—but Michael Hamilton's direction is so sharp and fast-paced that it feels much shorter. Stephen Bourneuf's inventive choreography helps keep things moving as well, with what looks like some clear nods to Bob Fosse's work for the 1961 original. His hilariously spasmodic moves for the caffeine-deprived ensemble in "Coffee Break" are a good example; they remind you of Fosse without in any way actually imitating him.

"It's Been a Long Day"
Photo: Peter Wochniak

Above all, though, what makes this production such a hit is a top-notch cast, headed by St. Louis's own Ben Nordstrom as J. Pierrepont Finch, who schemes his way to the top of the ladder at World Wide Wickets. Finch is a completely amoral character, which means the actor playing him has to make him appealing or risk losing the audience. Mr. Nordstrom hits exactly the right combination winsomeness and winking slyness, along with a fluid sense of physical comedy. I was reminded very much of Ralph Macchio's superb performance in the tour of the 1995 revival that played the Fox eighteen years ago.

As Bud Frump, the obnoxious nephew of company president J.B. Biggley, Joseph Medeiros is also a very strong and funny stage presence, with more of a sense of physical lightness and animation than I usually associate with the role. He doesn't just walk across the stage, he prances like a Don Martin cartoon come to life.

As Rosemary Pilkington, Finch's much-neglected love interest, Betsy Dilellio isn't required to do much more than be starry-eyed and supportive, but she does it to perfection and, like her co-stars, has excellent comic timing.

"I Believe in You"
Photo: Peter Wochniak

Claire Neumann is wonderfully sardonic as Rosemary's friend Smitty. In the dual roles of mailroom manager Twimble and board chairman Wally Womper, Bill Bateman looks and sounds like a Warner Brothers cartoon come to life, although his uniquely clear, high tenor makes it hard for him to disguise himself in the latter role, even with a wig and moustache.

Johmaalya Adelekan does some dynamite Ella Fitzgerald–style scat singing as the otherwise staid Miss Jones in the mock spiritual, "The Brotherhood of Man". Whit Reichert is a mischievously charming Biggley, continually besieged by his wife and desperately trying to placate his tacky mistress, Hedy Larue.

As Hedy, Heather Ayers displays considerable comic style, but I didn't find her especially convincing as the sex bomb whose very appearance turns every male character into a gibbering nincompoop. Steve Isom rounds out the principal cast in fine style as the conniving personnel manager, Bert Bratt.

The versatile members of the ensemble take on various smaller roles and dance with impeccable precision. I especially liked their work in "A Secretary is Not a Toy," a number that, since the 1995 revival, is usually staged in a way that implies that the secretaries are not only not toys, they're more in control of the organization than their male bosses might think.

Heather Ayers and Whit Reichert
Photo: Peter Wochniak

That and other minor tweaks made for the Broadway revival help to take the edge off the painfully dated sexism of the original, but what really changes it from offensive to laughable is the decision to keep the entire show firmly set in the "Mad Men" era. Jeff Shearer and Lou Bird's bright, Technicolor costumes, James Wolk's retro-modern set with its color-changing light panels, and Matthew McCarthy's matching lighting design all get the cartoonish look just right. And Mr. Hamilton's willingness to push everything right up to the line of absurdity turns it all into a non-stop laugh machine.

I could go on about all the reasons why this production of "How to Succeed" succeeds, but the bottom line, as they still say in biz-speak, is that this is a flawless mounting of a masterpiece of musical satire. It's also a show that ought to be required viewing for those boneheaded Congressional media blowhards who seem to regard the so-called "private sector" as the epitome of the American dream, rather than a growing national nightmare.

"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" continues through August 17 at the Stages theater in the Kirkwood Community Center, 111 South Geyer Road. For more information, visit the web site.

Additional Info

  • Director: Michael Hamilton
  • Dates: July 18-August 17, 2014

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