How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

The economy is always on everyone’s mind, whether it’s the rise and fall of the stock market or the latest outrage over Wall Street bonuses. Given the financial suffering occurring in America, it’s difficult to imagine cheering on another undeserving bigwig. But when that muckety-muck is played by Daniel Radcliffe in his musical theater debut, it’s hard not to.

After making his Broadways debut in Equus two years ago, Radcliffe has stepped into the shoes of Robert Morse and Mathew Broderick, who played J. Pierrepont Finch in the original production and 1994 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Both men won the Tony Award for their performances in a role that requires considerable comedic chops as well as singing and dancing skills. While he may not surpass his predecessors, Radcliffe certainly succeeds by trying very, very hard.

Known best for his titular role in the Harry Potter franchise, Radcliffe has a pleasant, if at times thin, singing voice and is clearly comfortable onstage. His skills as a dancer are surprising and he is obviously eager to demonstrate them, whether he is nimbly leapfrogging over co-star John Larroquette in “Grand Old Ivy” or encouraging his co-workers to think of the “Brotherhood of Man” when facing a shameful firing from his job. Somehow, Finch’s luck appears to win out in every situation. (The lights helpfully dim whenever this happens, just in case we can’t figure this out ourselves).

A satire of corporate culture and based on Shepherd Mead’s 1952 satirical book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying received numerous accolades upon its premiere, including the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize. In order for the show to succeed, it must simultaneously achieve a level of satire and sincerity that maintains the audience’s investment in the characters while still remaining detached enough to laugh at their antics. This production, directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, does not achieve that. The sincerity of the cast outweighs the satire of the script, and the result is a production that is neither moving nor amusing.

Ashford has directed his cast to present their characters as just that – actual characters – and the winning earnestness of this attractive ensemble negates the biting commentary of the book. Larroquette is the only one who escapes this trap, playing inept company President J. B. Biggley with a delicate balance of humor.

Rose Hemingway plays Finch’s love interest, secretary Rosemary Pilkington. For her, it’s love at first sight, but he takes a little longer to acknowledge his interest. (When he does, it’s more in the style of Tom Cruise than Robert Morse). Hemingway has a lovely voice, but she plays the part so earnestly that one begins to pity her and wonder why she stays with Finch when he is so dismissive of her. The dated sexism of the show does not help Finch earn any points with the audience either. The songs “A Secretary is Not a Toy” and “Cinderella Darling” are actually uncomfortable to witness, and Rosemary’s declaration that she would be “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” inspires pity rather than amusement. While the success of Mad Men may inspire interest in How to Succeed…, anyone who has watched Betty Draper suffer in silence would not wish the same for Hemingway’s Rosemary. She and Radcliffe make such a petite pair that they almost appear as childhood sweethearts rather than adult lovers.

While the production is undeniably entertaining, the show’s poignancy in modern-day, post-feminist culture is difficult to determine. The idea of a young man rising from window washer to Chairman of the Board with no education or experience other than flattery and insinuation is not that implausible, nor is the idea of an executive singing a love song to himself in the bathroom mirror. But the sexism of the show is more difficult to accept.  Whether it’s Rosemary thrilling in the idea that her husband will “look right through” her, or the chorus of secretary’s stating that marrying an executive is their idea of a fairy tale, the humor is lost in the post-Feminine Mystique knowledge of depressed housewives, alcoholism and domestic violence. It is notable that Rosemary is always standing alone on stage singing about her love for Finch – he is never with her.

Hedy La Rue, Rosemary’s opposite, is played by Tammy Blanchard, who has perfected her character’s sexy strut and blank stare. She lands all of Hedy’s comedic moments ably. Mary Faber delivers a solid performance as Smitty, Rosemary’s fellow secretary, and Christopher Hencke shows glimpses of real brilliance as Bud Frump, Finch’s scheming rival. Unfortunately, he is not permitted to fulfill them onstage.

How to Succeed’s… score, by Frank Loesser, is filled with lovely songs and they offer the potential for delightful dance sequences. But Ashford’s choreography does not fit the bill; it is disappointingly flat and uninspired. The only number that fulfills its potential is the eleven o’clock “Brotherhood of Man,” a delightfully energetic number which permits Radcliffe to feature his impressive dancing skills. His exuberance shines through and, despite the production’s pitfalls, he does succeed.

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