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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying
Theater Works

Also see Gil's reviews of Seminar, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The Sound of Music, Forever Plaid


Joshua Vern, Aya Nameth, and Alanna Kalbfleisch
The 1961 Pulitzer Prize winning musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying is a comedy that tells a fairly simple story of a young man and his rise up the corporate ladder—with all of the business politics and office romances that come along with that climb. It has a fun, infectious score by Frank Loesser but is also steeped in the time period of the 1960s and filled with the sexism and sexist characters that the period personifies. While book writers Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert take a satirical look at corporate life during those years, the audience must check political correctness at the door in order to get past some of the now very un-pc elements of the plot. The Theater Works production has two positive aspects going for it that help make those unappetizing moments and characters easier to digest. First, recent corporate dramas like the hit TV show "Mad Men" and the film The Wolf of Wall Street satirize the corporate game, along with all of the sexism and sexual hi-jinks, but take a far less comical tone than How to Succeed..., making the musical more of a charming period piece than a garish, shocking one. Second, director Toby Yatso doesn't try to hide or downplay any of the sexual shenanigans—in fact, he relishes them and makes them even more funny and satirical, which results in a heightened comedy sense and a more upbeat and fun show.

J. Pierrepont Finch is a former window washer who, upon reading a book called "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," finds himself quickly on the way up the corporate ladder at the World Wide Wicket company by following the steps in the book. Finch befriends J.B. Biggley, the president of the company and, in a very determined way, he figures out how to be in the right place at the right time to overhear important information that helps him as he ascends the ladder.

In order for a production of this show to succeed, it must balance the satire with the sincerity of the characters and situations so we can root for the characters while we are laughing at the situations they've gotten themselves into. Yatso doesn't make the portrayals of the characters too cartoonish or too broad, factors that would go against the well written book and make the overall effect too satirical. He plays up the period elements of the piece, making the sexist moments into comical ones, and has the female characters be more equals to the men in their intelligence. This is especially apparent in the part of Rosemary, the secretary who is in love with Finch, who is now more a co-conspirator in Finch's plan instead of just a dimwitted secretary whose goal in life is to marry a businessman.

The Theater Works cast are all fine actors, comics, and singers. Joshua Vern is perfectly likable and charismatic as the career-focused Finch. He has a strong voice, a pleasing stage presence, good comedic timing, and he's even a decent dancer. It's a smart performance. Jeffrey Middleton is funny and charming as the warm, animated Biggley. Aya Nameth has a witty comic delivery and a powerful voice which she uses to great effect on Rosemary's songs. She instills Rosemary with a knowing wink similar to Finch's.

As Biggley's nephew Bud Frump, the annoying office worker who uses his relationship to the boss to get ahead, Michael Schwenke is giving a goofy and winning turn that fortunately doesn't cross over into chewing on the scenery. Alanna Kalbfleisch, who was a comic gem in Theater Works' last main stage show I Get a Kick out of Cole, is Smitty, the nosey secretary and Rosemary's friend, and she is just as good here. Osiris Cuen, who last Spring starred as an innocent young girl in Childsplay's Super Cowgirl and Mighty Miracle, has done a complete 180-degree turn as the sexpot Hedy LaRue, which she plays perfectly. And Kathleen Berger, in a featured part as Biggley's secretary, has the perfect air and demeanor of the no-nonsense secretary, showing off her great voice in the showstopping "Brotherhood of Men."

While Yatso's direction works for the most part, the cast does miss some of the finer comical nuances of the script and his scene changes drag on far too long—and there are a lot of scene changes in this show. Kat Bailes' choreography is adequate, though Yatso and Bailes do a nice job with the "Grand Old Ivey" number where Finch is trying to impress Biggley by joining him in his college fight song. Since Finch doesn't know the movements, Yatso and Bailes have Vern a split second behind as he tries to do what Middleton is doing, which works perfectly to make it seem like Finch really doesn't know the movements.

Creative elements are colorful though not elaborate, with Brett Aiken's set design featuring pastel colors of the period. I especially liked the multi-colored desks. Tamara Treat's costumes include an abundance of suits for the men, '60s work dresses for the ladies and a distinctly one-of-a-kind dress for the "Paris Original" sequence. Tim Monson's lighting works well and the sound design from Alex Cozza features a lovely echo effect on a few key words in the act one closer "Rosemary."

Theater Works' production of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a fun filled production with several winning performances.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying runs through November 9th, 2014, at Theater Works at 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at theaterworks.org or by calling 623 815-7930

Directed by Toby Yatso
Choreographed by Kat Bailes
Set Designer: Brett Aiken
Lighting Designer: Tim Monson
Sound Designer: Alex Cozza
Costume Designer: Tamara Treat
Hair and Make-Up Designer: Johanna Carlisle
Props Designer: Petey Swartz

Cast:
J. Pierrepont Finch: Joshua Vern
Jasper P. Biggley: Jeffrey Middleton
Rosemary Pilkington: Aya Nameth
Bert O. Brat: Alan Fisher
Miss Smith/Smitty: Alanna Kalbfleisch
Bud Frump: Michael Schwenke
Miss Jones: Kathleen Berger
Hedy LaRue: Osiris Cuen
Mr. Twimble/Wally Womper: Ken Hansen
Gatch/TV Announcer: Tony Latham
Benjamin Ovington/ Policeman: Michael Leeth
Takakaberry: Skyler Washburn
Peterson/Jenkins: Karson Cook
Matthews: Cody H. Seaver
Johnson/Davis: Jonathan Ramirez
Toynbee: Brian Carmona
Ms. Krumholtz: Samantha Isley
1st Scrubwoman: Megan Farinella
2n Scrubwoman: Veronica Ancona
Male Ensemble: Michael Leith, Spyker Washburn, Karson Cook, Cody Seaver, Jonathan Ramirez, Brian Carmona, Tony Latham
Female Ensemble: Hahnna Christianson, Veronica Ancona, Katie Cjajkowski, Megan Farinella, Genesis Cuen, Samantha Isley


Photo: Wade Moran / Theater Works

--Gil Benbrook


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