Posts Tagged ‘how to succeed in business without really trying’

How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
July 23, 2014

Ben Nordstrom and cast Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Ben Nordstrom and cast
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a classic satire of corporate culture that debuted on Broadway in 1961 and has enjoyed two successful major revivals, most recently in 2011 starring Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette. It’s one of those shows that, even with its well-known songs and celebrated reputation, needs just the right cast, pacing and direction to work well. STAGES St. Louis in their impeccably cast production has achieved just the right balance of sharp satire, comic timing and colorful staging to make for a wildly entertaining and truly memorable evening of theatre.

Since this is a show that is very much tied to the era in which it was written, this production wisely keeps the period setting intact.  This is a world in which big business is dominated by ambitious men, with young window washer J. Pierrepont Finch (Ben Nordstrom) being perhaps the most ambitious of all. Armed with a seemingly omniscient “how-to” manual (narrated authoritatively by George Spelvin), Finch embarks on his quest to rise in the corporate ranks at the World Wide Wicket corporation.  Along the way up the executive ladder, Finch meets a variety of business-world characters such as the bumbling boss J.B. Biggley (Whit Reichart), the boss’s outrageously scheming nephew Bud Frump (Joseph Medeiros), the archetypal ditzy blonde secretary (and Biggley’s mistress) Hedy LaRue (Heather Ayers), and a host of others ranging from ambitious backbiting executives to world-weary secretaries to unambitious worker bees, in a large, dehumanizing company setting. Finch also meets Rosemary Pilkington (Betsy DeLellio), a young secretary whose ambitious are more personal than corporate, and who is continually frustrated by Finch’s single-minded aspirations despite her own stated life’s goal to be a neglected executive’s wife.  Finch’s successes are not without their complications, although he always seems to find a way to turn situations to his advantage, with hilarious results.

While some of the situations portrayed in this show are still relevant today, others (such as the very strictly defined gender roles) are very specific to the show’s era, so an early 1960’s look and sensibility are required for this production, as is a very sharp sense of pacing.  The jokes are fast-moving and the humor is witty and sharp, with a large ensemble and many stage-filling production numbers that require precise choreography. Fortunately, this production strikes just the right tone, and the pacing is crisp and vibrant, as evidenced by such fantastic ensemble numbers as “Coffee Break”, “The Company Way” and the show-stopping “Brotherhood of Man”.  The dancing is very strong and cohesive, and every ensemble member is in excellent form, performing with energy, enthusiasm and style.  The physical look of the production is striking as well, with a great atmospheric set by James Wolk and colorful lighting effects designed by Matthew McCarthy. The costumes, designed by Jeff Shearer and Lou Bird, are well-suited to the characters and, for the most part, evocative of the period. Chairman of the Board Wally Womper (Bill Bateman) looks more like he belongs in 1978 than 1961, and a few of the secretaries’ outfits appear more 1980’s than 1960’s, but for the most part, the look is distinctly appropriate, especially with Finch’s increasingly colorful suits and Biggley’s outrageous argyle golf ensemble.

This production’s strongest point is its universally wonderful cast, led by the appropriately charismatic Nordstrom as Finch. This is a difficult role because Finch is so boldly ambitious, it takes just the right combination of charm and audacity to make the audience cheer for him despite some of his clearly unscrupulous actions. Nordstrom has a winning smile, a strong voice, and great “buddy” chemistry with Reichart as Biggley, as evidenced in the outstanding “Old Ivy” number in the first act. Nordstrom also displays a strong romantic spark with the equally excellent DeLellio as the perky Rosemary, especially in their truly wonderful, sweetly goofy duet, titled “Rosemary” at the end of Act 1. Also notable is the delightfully oily performance of Medeiros as the spiteful, simpering Bud Frump. Medeiros is a master of physical comedy, bringing a gleeful energy to his every move and expression, and he threatens to steal every scene he’s in.  Also giving memorable performances are Claire Neumann as Rosemary’s friend, the secretary Smitty; Ayers, slightly channeling  Judy Holliday as Hedy LaRue; Bateman, hilarious in a dual role as Womper and as the determinedly un-ambitious mail room chief Twimble; and Johmaalya Adelekan as Biggley’s no-nonsense secretary Miss Jones, displaying a strong voice in the 1995 revival’s arrangement of “Brotherhood of Man” which includes jazz scatting and gospel influences. This is an impressive cast of strong character performances as well as charming leads who bring out all the satirical elements of the clever script while remaining eminently watchable and making every scene a comic delight.

This is a deceptively difficult show to produce. All the right elements need to be there–a dynamic and likable Finch, a strong supporting cast, spot-on comic timing and the right balance of satire and heart. This production has all those elements in abundance, as well as that extra undefinable “something special” that distinguishes a truly great production from simply a good one. How To Succeed… at STAGES is distinctively entertaining and uproariously funny from start to finish.  If the goal, like that of the protagonist Finch, is success, this production achieves that goal with flying colors.  It’s well worth the journey to Kirkwood to see this fantastic show.

Betsy DiLellio, Ben Nordstrom  Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Betsy DiLellio, Ben Nordstrom
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

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