Friday, April 01, 2011

THEATER: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Photos/The Hartman Group
In this bleak economic time, it's nice to have a cheery old-fashioned musical putting a fresh spin on office politics: it's still the daily grind, as evidenced by songs like "Coffee Break," and "How to Succeed," but with ballroom finesse and heel-spinning pizazz. The secretaries are as mistreated here as on Mad Men (and seem happy about it, according to "Cinderella Darling" and "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm"), but they're well-treated by the choreography, which has them tap-dancing away in high heels. And while the lyrics of songs about office loyalty ("Company Way") may have aged poorly, the catchy tunes have not, and time after time, choreographer Rob Ashford's lively, colorful choreography steals the show.

Which leads to a valid question: in a show which stars Daniel Radcliffe as the young, making-it-up-as-he-goes entrepreneur J. Pierrepont Finch, and John Larroquette as the beset and blustery boss, J. B. Biggley, how is it that the dancers steal the show? Well, first of all, Ashford's also directing, and he's a dancer's director (which serves a high-energy show like this). Second of all, it's a matter of conviction: Radcliffe's trading on the charisma of his films rather than establishing his own, and he speaks -- particularly in the second act -- at such a clip that he frequently trips himself up. Though he throws himself into the role, particularly the athletic "Finale" and the football fantasia of "Grand Old Ivy," he's a bit reedy compared to veterans like Christopher J. Hanke (who plays his incompetent, nepotistic rival, Bud Frump) or unknown talents like Rose Hemingway (who stiffly plays the love interest, Rosemary Pilkington, but delivers with her profound pipes). On the other hand, Larroquette oozes comfort, even when singing well out of his range (in his love song to his mistress, "Love From a Heart of Gold"), but isn't on stage often enough to out-do the spectacles. (Oh, and Derek McLane's absolutely mod three-tiered honeycomb of cubicles helps to literally elevate the dancers, too.)

But here's the more important answer: it doesn't matter that the dancers are the stars here; Radcliffe's a perfectly serviceable Finch, and bound to draw in a crowd. The musical's not really about him, so much as it is about the idea of upward mobility that he represents: the thought runs, if he can do it, so can we -- so having a semi-ordinary star may actually be a boon. It's only a shame that the romance is so hackneyed: "Rosemary" and "I Believe in You" are sincerely beautiful songs, and they're a little undone by the glitter of the purely comic numbers that surround them. Still, there's nothing wrong with a frenetic comedy like this when it's done well, and thanks to a roster of well-cast supporters that include Tammy Blanchard as the air-headed secretary Hedy La Rue and Mary Faber as the voice of reason and best friend Smitty, it's done well. And after another month of performances, who's to say that Radcliffe won't join them, once he learns how to stop trying so hard, and to start really succeeding.

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