Chicago Theatre Review
Rising to the Top of the Corporate Ladder
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying – Marriott Theatre
As the overture winds down, a young man in coveralls descends from above. J. Pierrepont Finch, an ambitious young window washer, is discovered reading Shepherd Mead’s instruction book, of the same name, while dangling from scaffolding above Madison Avenue. Narrated by Emily Loesser, the book progresses chapter-by-chapter, charting the recommended course for Ponty’s rise to power. Bear in mind that this best-selling how-to manual, a 1952 best-seller by Shepherd Mead, subtitled “The Dastard’s Guide to Fame and Fortune,” was written as a parody of the popular self-help books of that era. Between this book’s unfailing advice and Finch’s pluck and pizzazz, the kid is destined to rise to the top…or will he?
It’s hard to believe that this show, which set a new standard for musical comedy satire, is over 50 years old now. With a score by Frank Loesser (“Guys & Dolls,” “Most Happy Fellow”) and a libretto adapted by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, adapted from Mead’s humorous book of the same name, this musical has a field day lampooning the ease with which an entry level employee could easily rise to the top of the corporate ladder. A film preserving the performances of most of the original cast (but not the entire score) was released in 1967. This 1962 Pulitzer Prize and eight-time Tony Award winner has been successfully revived twice on Broadway, earning additional Tony Award nominations and wins.
Just when it seems darkest, the young soon-to-be executive aligns with precisely the right people to learn from and suck up to, as well as the easiest loopholes to infiltrate in order to reach the top. When those elements are in short supply Ponty employs his considerable boyish charm, which manages to ultimately make him a winner.
Filled with sexism, chauvinism and nepotism, some theatergoers might find the themes of this hilarious musical objectionable by today’s standards; but the show is a scathing satire and an historical look at a bygone era. During the Eisenhower and Nixon years, when this musical takes place, these were commonplace problems, so rampant in corporate America. Today’s theatergoers can laugh and shake their heads at how far we’ve come today in gender equality. As when the musical first hit Broadway, the humor of the script, the bounciness and bite of the music and lyrics exaggerate and poke fun at the dimwitted, average business executive, their blind objectification of women and, in spite of this, a secretary’s goal for success, only achieved by marrying her boss.
Guest director Don Stephenson demonstrates his reknowned talent and perceptive knowhow with this fast-paced production. Clearly Stephenson understands and loves the comic potential that infuses the show’s cartoon-like quality, beautifully derived from Shepherd Mead’s original parody. This production takes off at the starting gate, with dialogue, staging and musical tempos all at a breakneck pace, and never lets down until after the curtain call. Unlike some directors, Mr. Stephenson makes perfect use of Marriott’s in-the-round theatre venue, keeping both his story and characters in almost constant motion, providing every audience member with a clear view of what’s going on.
Choreographer Melissa Zaremba pays homage to the comedy of the story itself, enhancing it with quirky, stylized moves that also reflect the aesthetic of the 60’s. Her transformation of “Cinderella Darling” into a chorine tap number is pure genius; the athleticism found in her choreography of “Coffee Break” is truly addictive and inspired; and her corporate-infused revival meeting version of “Brotherhood of Man” creates the perfect exclamation point to conclude this brilliant musical.
Musical director Ryan T. Nelson makes full use of Frank Loesser’s storytelling genius through his songs and incidental tunes. He attributes the composer’s ability to employ his musicality to add additional humor to the piece. As in the original production, Nelson incorporates kazoos and typewriters as instruments in order to add a unique and humorous texture to score. There’s even a salute to the romantically dramatic music of Edvard Grieg in the song “Rosemary,” the first finale to the first act. And this score, played by Patti Garwood’s nine-member pit orchestra, is heavy on brass and woodwind and gorgeous.
In the leading role of J. Pierrepont Finch, young New York musical actor Ari Butler is sensational. Understanding that less can be more, he underplays his role a bit, giving his supporting cast the chance to shine with their over-the-top characterizations. Butler has a pleasant voice, with just the right amount of vibrato, reminiscent of young Robert Morse’s original performance in this role. Besides the title song, Mr. Butler delights with “The Company Way,” “Grand Old Ivy,” “I Believe in You,” “Brotherhood of Man” and his showpiece number, “Rosemary.” Besides his musicality, the actor’s good looks, boyish charm, comic timing, dancing skill and scene-stealing grin provide a winning combination. In short, Ari Butler is the perfect leading man for this show.
He’s matched note-for-note by lovely Jessica Naimy, another newcomer to the Marriott stage, as his leading lady, Rosemary Pilkington. She’s possessed of an energy that drives her every song, move and smile. Whether imagining a married life with Finch, being “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” or hoping to dazzle him in her new “Paris Original,” Ms. Naimy is the perfect Rosemary. She never plays the role as a helpless ingenue, but as a driven, young woman who knows what she wants and will to do anything to achieve her goal. This determination especially pours forth in her reprise of “I Believe in You.”
Each and every supporting character is played with vim and vigor. Multitalented Terry Hamilton, so wonderful in recent shows like “October Sky” and “The Price,” is J. B. Biggley, the hardheaded president of the World Wide Wickets company. Played with get-up-and-go gusto, peppered with a weakness for flattery and beautiful women, Mr. Hamilton is wonderfully funny in this role. The epitome of the dumb blonde, Angela Ingersoll is delicious as sexy Hedy La Rue. Not to be taken advantage of, and with her own agenda of how to succeed without really trying, Ms. Ingersoll plays Hedy as if the role had been written expressly for her. As foxy as she is beautiful, Ms. Ingersoll, who practically erupts out of her low-cut dresses, makes the most of her physical prowess, mining comedy from every line and movement. Her schmaltzy duet with Hamilton, “Love From a Heart of Gold,” becomes a sweetly welcome sincere moment in a show so filled with comedy.
Marya Grandy, who’s stolen the spotlight in Marriott productions like “On the Town” and “Sister Act,” fires with both barrels as Smitty, a fellow secretary and Rosemary’s gal pal. She shines in every musical number, especially “Cinderella Darling,” the sweetly manipulative “It’s Been a Long a Day” and, the highlight of this show, “Coffee Break.” Sharing the production’s comic honors with Alex Goodrich, playing Biggley’s spoiled nephew, Bud Frump, we’re treated to another high octane jester. An always entertaining actor, Alex Goodrich (remembered as Buddy the Elf from last year’s holiday production), Goodrich creates another memorable character, a conniving, brown-nosing mama’s boy who’ll stop at nothing, including nepotism, to rise up the corporate ladder. Along with Ms. Grandy and the entire company, Goodrich’s lead in “Coffee Break” is the comic highlight of this production.
This production is enthralling and absolutely flawless. It’s fast-paced, filled with wonderful songs that theatergoers will leave humming and comic characters who won’t soon be forgotten. Kudos to Jason Grimm, Derek Hasenstab and Felicia P. Fields in their supporting roles, equally stupendous and sidesplitting, as is the entire ensemble of talented singers and dancers. Thomas M. Ryan’s spartan scenic design, beautifully highlighted by Jesse Klug’s moving, kaleidoscopic, geometric lighting accent Catherine Zuber’s rainbow-colored, period fashions to their finest. Don Stephenson, working together with Melissa Zaremba and Ryan T. Nelson, have guided their talented cast of triple-threats to entertain and instruct audiences how to effortlessly rise up the corporate ladder and achieve musical harmony and hilarity, all at the same time.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 28-October 16 by the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, IL.
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