Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying
Stages St. Louis

Also see Richard's review of Funny Girl

Ben Nordstrom and male cast members
In an outstanding new production of Frank Loesser and Abe Burrow's famed musical comedy, we have a show that may, nevertheless, be remembered as the "Psychedelic H2$." And, of course, I picked the wrong night to give up hallucinogenic mushrooms.

But first and foremost, let's acknowledge the unstoppable power of Ben Nordstrom as Finch: a Manhattan window washer who climbs the corporate ladder like nobody's business. Even at curtain call, after a performance that would have killed a lesser man, he leaps into the air, twists around, and beckons the cast into a grand company bow, before the lights go down on this vibrant, candy-colored show.

All the way through, Nordstrom defies the limits of human endurance: charismatic and energetic, despite the fact that he's also playing a clever, manipulative, megalomaniacal, duplicitous, backstabbing and just plain lucky son-of-a-bitch. He's a sort of male Scarlett O'Hara, but even Scarlett O'Hara never sang a love song to herself in the mirror. How does Mr. Nordstrom get away with all that, and still seem so delightful? There must be a portrait hidden away up in his attic, of a very decrepit, disease-ridden Ben Nordstrom, is all I can say.

It's funny, because recent critical opinion came down against the script itself, with its dated depiction of bimbo secretaries and predatory executives. But now all our preconceptions have seemingly been revised, with the advent of the brooding, stylish TV series "Mad Men."

As a result of that 1960s-based TV show, replete with its own array of (conflicted and struggling, and even saintly) bimbo secretaries and (just plain) predatory executives, this How To Succeed is rationalized anew, and looks better than it has in years under the delightful direction of Michael Hamilton.

But how can you avoid talking about the show's sometimes overwhelming light plot, with its intense washes of every tint and hue, glowing (almost maniacally) on the LED panels set all across, and up and down, the walls of the backdrop, like futuristic mosaics: comically drenching the performers with a panorama of vivid oranges and blues and pinks and, well, you-name-it? Like the recent Stages production of My One And Only, with its array of costumes and lights, we're back inside a fantastic dreamland all over again. Someday I'll figure out if Stages owes more, inspirationally, to Arthur Freed and the MGM of the 1950s, or to the Busby Berkley films of the 1930s. After my eyesight clears up.

Matthew McCarthy gets credit for the over-the-top lighting design, and James Wolk for the sets. And their combined optical-effects work is pretty darned stunning. In fact, if you have any of that pain medicine left over from your last root canal surgery, you just might want to bring that along with you. (I'm joking, of course, www.talkinbroadway.com does not condone the misuse of prescription medications, and if you don't believe me, just check your "All That Chat" guidelines.) But seriously, those pills are only going to be thrown out someday anyway.

By mentioning Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Wolk right after Mr. Nordstrom, of course, I realize that I have elevated them to the position of co-stars, or even "love-interests" in the production. And that's not entirely accidental. But, as a matter of fact, it was Betsy Dilellio as Finch's hopelessly devoted girlfriend, Rosemary, who triggered the standing ovation the night I was there. Abe Burrows, in his memoir, says it was her character that was supposed to sing Mr. Loesser's reassuring love song "I Believe In You" to Finch, before a big presentation. As Mr. Burrows remembers it, though, he and co-authors Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert ultimately decided it would be a lot more fun if Finch sang it to himself.

Thank goodness Ms. Dilellio has the brains and talent to make it seem like she's singing a love song to this Finch, in every moment she's on stage—even if the show's bright lights threaten to put her in the shade. In the end, she succeeds by winning the audience to her side.

Whit Reichert is excellent as the bluff and towering J.B. Biggley; and Joseph Medeiros (as Bud Frump) has the thankless job of enlivening a role created by Charles Nelson Reilly. Somebody's got to do it, though, and Mr. Medeiros swivels and sneers and almost twirls a virtual mustache as Finch's young rival—though his best moments come when he gets to add a diabolical little soft-shoe, when nobody's looking.

Heather Ayers gains remarkable comedic stature throughout, till she overwhelms every light on stage as the boss's mistress; and Claire Neumann adds a delightful dash of Eileen Brennan to her performance as Rosemary's pal Smitty. Johmaalya Adelekan freshens up the big finale with some jazzy scat singing, and Bill Bateman achieves a stunning effect through two quite different performances on stage.

A very enjoyable production of a very silly show (which just happened to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1962). In it, the men do a surprisingly great job walking a line between the lightly cartoonish and the darkly craven, even as the women navigate between the bimbo-ish and hopeful, and even saintly.

Through August 17, 2014, at the Kirkwood Recreation Center, 111 South Geyer, at the Robert G. Reim Theatre on the south end of the complex. For more information visit www.stagesstlouis.com.

The Cast (in order of appearance)
Voice of the Narrator: George Spelvin
J. Pierrepont Finch: Ben Nordstrom*
Bert Bratt: Steve Isom*
Milt Gatch: Christopher DeAngelis*
Jenkins: John Flack*
Davis: Charlie Ingram*
Tackaberry: Stephen Barnowski
Matthews: Paul Sabala*
Peterson: Aaron Umsted*
Johnson: Jonathan Kwock*
J.B.Biggley: Whit Reichert*
Henchmen: Charlie Ingram*, Austin Hohnke*
Rosemary Pilkington: Betsy Dilellio*
Smitty: Claire Neumann*
Bud Frump: Joseph Medeiros*
Miss Krumholtz: Juliane Godfrey*
Office Secretaries: Lois Enders*, Brittany Rose Hammond*, Erika Hebron, Lauren Roesner, Bronwyn Tarboton*
Office Boy: Brennan Caldwell
Miss Jones: Johmaalya Adelekan*
Twimble: Bill Bateman*
Hedy LaRue: Heather Ayers*
Scrubwomen: Brittany Rose Hammond*, Lauren Roesner
Ovington: Austin Hohnke*
Toynbee: Christopher DeAngelis*
Wickets & Wickettes: Lois Enders*, Brittany Rose Hammond*, Erika Hebron, Jonathan Kwock*, Bronwyn Tarboton*, Aaron Umsted*
TV Announcer: Austin Hohnke*
Man With Bible: Brennan Caldwell
Security Guard: Paul Sabala*
Wally Womper: Bill Bateman*

Director: Michael Hamilton
Choreographer: Stephen Bourneuf
Stage Manager: Shawn Pryby*
Musical Director: Lisa Campbell Albert
Costume Designers: Jeff Shearer and Lou Bird
Design Supervised by Annie Peacock Warner
Lighting: Matthew McCarthy
Scenic Design: James Wolk
Orchestral Design: Stuart M. Elmore

* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association, the professional association of actors and stage managers in the US.

Photo: Peter Wochniak

-- Richard T. Green

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