The fall Mainstage musical theater production at the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM) is typically a musical comedy classic that showcases a lot of dancing and a large cast. This year's offering, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, fits the bill nicely and is a slick and entertaining romp, thanks to a talented cast, first-rate direction and choreography and one of the best scenic designs found in recent local theater.
How To Succeed premiered on Broadway in 1961 and won the 1962 Tony Award for Best Musical, along with the Pulitzer Prize, a rarity for a musical. The show follows window washer J. Pierrepont Finch as he skyrockets up the corporate ladder of World Wide Wicket, Inc. (circa 1962) with the help of a manual and less-than-ethical scruples. This satirical look at office politics and the associated cut-throat tactics and self-centered motivations means that few of the characters are all that likeable, but the show itself somehow manages to be funny, light, and agreeable.
The musical is an adaption of the same titled novel by Shepherd Mead. The book for the musical by Willie Gilbert, Jack Weinstock and original director Abe Burrows is smart, witty and fun. Being a prime example of the old fashioned '50s/'60s musical, the show has its fair share of dance breaks, reprises and time spent on secondary couples. With the numerous scenes, the story feels a bit choppy at times, but it rarely lags and doesn't feel like the nearly three hours running time. However, some audience members may be put off by the decidedly politically incorrect (by modern standards) look at sexism and sexual harassment. Luckily, the show is obviously satire, and written and set in a different, long ago era, so theatergoers are likely to be forgiving.
The excellent score by Frank Loesser (Guys & Dolls) contains bouncy, accessible melodies and intelligent, yet straightforward lyrics. "I Believe In You," "Paris Original" (where each woman excitedly proclaims how wonderful she'll look in her new one-of-a-kind dress at a company party, only to find that they all bought the same mass-produced dress), "Rosemary," "The Company Way" and "Brotherhood of Man" are all examples of Loesser's splendid abilities with music and words.
How To Succeed is truly an ensemble piece, which allows many of CCM's immensely talented and well-schooled student performers a chance to shine. As Finch, Justin Scott Brown is a delightful singer (as is the entire cast) and provides the character with the necessary cool and calm demeanor. Though Finch must step on a lot of people in order to get ahead, it helps that those he uses appear to be no better than he is, and Mr. Brown balances out Finch's ambition with just enough charisma and heart to make the audience root for him. Cody Williams is aptly conniving and comically annoying as Bud Frump, and uses his dance abilities well in exaggerating the role's devilishness. Kaitlyn Davidson (Rosemary) confidently handles many of the show's ballads with strong vocals, and displays apt romantic eagerness as she pursues Finch. As Smitty, Rosemary's best friend and wisecracking side-kick, Liberty Cogen possesses great stage presence and timing. Carl Draper (J.B. Biggley) and Lauren Sprague (Hedy La Rue) get lots of laughs and give detailed and well-rounded portrayals of characters (the company President and his dumb blonde mistress) that could easily be one dimensional. Christopher Blem (Mr. Twimble), Matthew Densky (Wally Womper) and Lexie Dorsett (Miss Jones) all excel in their showcased moments, and the entire ensemble prove to be true triple threat performers.
Director Aubrey Berg provides fluid transitions and worthwhile staging throughout, and infuses the production with an overriding sexual energy appropriate for the piece. Choreographer Diane Lala supplies some of the best dances for a CCM production in years, highlighted by "Coffee Break," "A Secretary Is Not A Toy," "I Believe In You" and "Brotherhood of Man". David Gardos leads a glorious 31-piece orchestra with gusto.
Thomas C. Umfrid's stylish and outstanding set incorporates a back wall framed by a Monopoly Board which is lit up in varying spots to emphasize certain plot points, to much laughter. His multi-faceted set pieces brilliantly capture the early 1960s architecture of corporate America, and his Executive Washroom set is ingenious. The costumes by Rebecca Senske are sexy, period appropriate and attractive, and the lighting by Ryan Bochnowski is professionally rendered.
How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying is a great example of an old-fashioned musical comedy, and CCM is certainly up to the task in every way with its solid and entertaining production. It will be interesting to see what they can do with the rarely mounted and much more eccentric musical adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona in February. How To Succeed played at CCM from November 20-23, 2008.