How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
For their final production of the 2003-2004 season and in celebration of their 25th anniversary, the Village Theatre has chosen to remount the very first musical of their inaugural season, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Composed by Frank Loesser and written by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, it is indeed a treasured favorite in the canon of American musicals and a Pulitzer Prize winner, to boot. The show is synonymous with actor Robert Morse, for whom Loesser and Burrows tailored the character of J. Pierrepont Finch, and his Tony award winning performance (captured in the 1967 film) cast an almost impenetrable shadow over the role. Matthew Broderick was assigned the task of breathing life into the part for Broadway's 1995 revival, also earning himself a Tony that year.
The story concerns the meteoric rise of window washer Finch (or Ponty, as he likes to call himself) through the corporate ranks of the World Wide Wicket Company, thanks to a handy-dandy guide book bearing the show's title. Along the way, Ponty learns how to be as deceptive, ruthless and conniving as those around him, dodging backstabs and eventually beating the other men at their own duplicitous game. And therein lies the dilemma ... how do you keep such a character likable? Even though he falls in love with lead secretary Rosemary Pilkington and sings the virtues of "The Brotherhood Of Man," it's still a delicate and crucial balance between charming and arch.
In the role of J. Pierrepont, Jason Collins definitely looks the part and certainly sings it. He is reminiscent of Broderick, possessing a boyish face and mellifluous tenor voice. His portrayal, however, is somewhat more calculating and self-assured than it should be. Ponty is, after all, learning from the book. His reactions when things work in his favor should be more amazed delight than smug knowingness ... "Gee, the book really works!" rather than "See? I told you so." To date, only Morse has been able to effortlessly hit the mark of charming roguishness required for the part, which isn't surprising since it was written specifically for him (Broderick was a bit too nice). Collins is unquestionably entertaining, but his characterization isn't fully realized, rendering it one-dimensional and somewhat unsatisfying. Musically, he scores with the opening number and several duets, but "I Believe In You," Ponty's anthem of sorts, is strangely lackluster. Luckily, he has "The Brotherhood Of Man" to redeem himself. It is by far the best number in this production.
"The Brotherhood of Man"
As love interest Rosemary Pilkington, Katie Tomlinson does a fine job of acting and singing. She brings to mind an image of Mary Tyler Moore, and her characterization is as sweet as Moore herself. Being that the show was written at a time of conspicuous sexism, it is difficult to hear songs like "Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm" and "Rosemary's Philosophy" without wincing, much less actually sing them, but Tomlinson delivers her numbers with sincerity, successfully overriding our enlightened modern sensibilities.
Comically, Carolyn Magoon as personnel secretary Smitty and Rich Gray as mailroom clerk Bud Frump are beyond compare. Both deliver a laugh a minute with their odd appearances and physical postures that would make a chiropractor faint. "Coffee Break" is a highlight for the two, as well as their interjections in "Been A Long Day," although the notes in areas seem to dip a bit low for Gray. Regardless, he is deliciously snide and a joy to watch.
The supporting cast continues in strength with the talents of Dennis Bateman as covert knitting company president J.B. Biggley, Tracey Wagner as the vapidly amusing Hedy La Rue, Elizabeth Arnold as Biggley's assistant Miss Jones, Ty Willis as personnel manager Mr. Bratt (the most spirited part of "The Brotherhood Of Man" number), Nick DeSantis as the lecherous Milt Gatch (also the best male dancer in the ensemble), and Will Halsey as ad man Mr. Ovington, who gets the biggest laugh of the show in act two (I shan't spoil it for those unfamiliar with the story, suffice to say it is priceless). The ensemble is well balanced, gliding gracefully through director Steve Tomkins' choreography and lending a solid base to the proceedings. The orchestra (one of the best I've heard in a Village production) is flawless under the direction of R.J. Tancioco.
Design elements are similarly strong. Scenic designer Carey Wong has created an environment almost operatic in scope, with building facades and marble textured interior walls that seem to stretch ever upwards and out of sight. These are suitably well lit by lighting designer Greg Sullivan, who contrasts the stark outside street of the city with the warm (and sometimes cold) offices within the building. Deane Middleton's costume design is fun, appropriately period and, in the case of Bud Frump and Smitty, delightfully askew.
I do question director Steve Tomkins' choice of using a chorus girl for the end moment of the show, wherein we see a window washer reading the same book Ponty used to conquer the business world. Originally written, it's supposed to be Bud Frump, who has lost his job at World Wide Wickets. As played in this production, it's a young girl, and as she smiles mischievously at the audience, the giant logo on the building cracks and falls. Is this meant to suggest that the entrance of women into the business world will be its downfall? I found the message, intentional or otherwise, to be at odds with the show.
With so much going for it, one would expect a uniformly positive response, but overall, I would say the sole quality the show lacks is heart. It's very much a pre-packaged, somewhat cartoon-like rendering that doesn't allow for much investment from the audience. However, while this particular production is perhaps more confection and less substance, it is nonetheless enjoyable, and a feast for the eyes.How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying runs through June 27 at Village Theatre in Issaquah, Wa, and July 9 - 25 at Everett Performing Arts Center in Everett, Wa. For further information visit Village Theatre online at www.villagetheatre.org.