Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 27, 2011
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying Music & lyrics by Frank Loesser. Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock & Willie Gilbert. Based on the book by Shepherd Mead. Directed & choreographed by Rob Ashford. Music direction & arrangements by David Chase. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Jon Weston. Hair & design by Tom Watson. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, John Larroquette, Tammy Blanchard, Christopher J. Hanke, Rob Bartlett, Mary Faber, Ellen Harvey, Michael Park, Cameron Adams, Cleve Asbury, Tanya Birl, Kevin Covert, Paige Faure, David Hull, Justin Keyes, Marty Lawson, Erica Mansfield, Barrett Martin, Nick Mayo, Sara O'Gleby, Stephanie Rothenberg, Megan Sikora, Michaeljon Slinger, Joey Sorge, Matt Wall, Ryan Watkinson, Charlie Williams, Samantha Zack, and introducing Rose Hemingway, featuring Anderson Cooper as the Voice of the Narrator.
For someone who's universally known from playing the title role in the Harry Potter series of movies and whose sole previous Broadway credit is the 2008 revival of Equus, this is no small achievement. After all, Broadway has a habit of swallowing up and spitting out even the biggest stars if they're not ready for the rigors of the Great White Way. (Julia Roberts in the play Three Days of Rain comes to mind; or take your pick of the grab-bag stunt-cast names in the current revival of Chicago.)
Not that this scintillating musical satire on the business world is a tough title. It opened in 1961 to numerous accolades (and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize) and has a libretto by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert (based on Shepherd Mead's 1952 book), and a score by Frank Loesser; it was knocking audiences dead long before Mad Men came to life. But you still need a force of nature in the mammoth lead of J. Pierrepont Finch, who progresses from window washer to chairman of the board in no time flat, for it to well and truly play.
Radcliffe has no trouble filling that role, and excels at the most important job facing any potential Finch: making him likable. That's much harder than it looks. He is, after all, a shameless opportunist who springboards to the upper echelons of the World Wide Wicket Company by obfuscating, dodging, and implying something other than the truth at almost every turn. He all but ignores the affections of the one woman most devoted to him, a secretary named Rosemary (Rose Hemingway), and steps on everyone else, particularly Bud Frump (Christopher J. Hanke), the nephew of the company president who's used to getting everything he wants.
Radcliffe's performance is not without caveats. Though he has reportedly been preparing for months, and his dancing looks highly accomplished, his voice is still unpolished (if in no way difficult to listen to). And if you prefer Finch to be powered by the kind of skyscraper-scaling goofiness associated with the role's creator, Robert Morse (who's also in the 1967 film), then you'll find Radcliffe's more down-to-earth version lacking. But you have to be looking for things to complain about: He's a real actor giving a real performance, and really just what the part needs most.
Much the same is true of John Larroquette, who's making his own Broadway musical debut as the company president, J.B. Biggley, and who blasts through his lines and jokes with stentorian authority of a battle-scarred stage veteran. When he towers over Radcliffe (looking like he's at least a foot taller), but crumples into a bastion of glee at how good this go-getter makes him feel, the laws of theatrical comedy are being followed to both the letter and the spirit.
Hemingway is charming as the doting Rosemary, and Hanke just right as the scheming Bud. Harvey, Rob Bartlett (as both the mailroom manager and the unknowingly outgoing chairman), Tammy Blanchard (as the upwardly mobile sexpot who ruins careers without a second, or even a first, thought), Mary Faber (as Smitty, the meddling personnel secretary and Rosemary's closest confidante), and Anderson Cooper (in a voiceover-only cameo as the narrator of Mead's book, propelling Finch to greatness) easily fulfill their job descriptions, if seldom reaching the heights of cartoonish glee that How to Succeed usually affords.
His dances, however, deserve less praise. Ashford's habit of critically overchoreographing his numbers has now shifted into lurching overdrive, leeching the effect of what should be high-impact musical numbers. The worst offenders are "Company Way," filled with unfocused mail sorting rather than punctuational dance; "Cinderella Darling," in which Smitty's advice to a lovelorn Rosemary is drowned out by secretaries furiously tapping; "Brotherhood of Man," the 11-o'clock showstopper that cannot build because it already starts out at light speed; and especially "Grand Old Ivy," the endearing school fight song charting Biggley and Finch's deepening relationship, not the football players Ashford summons to throw around Radcliffe like he's a pigskin.
Such material-distrusting gimmicks polluted Promises, Promises as well; this production soars in spite of them because the writing is at a higher level, and because so much else is so impeccable. The book, so crammed with jokes that you barely have time to stop laughing at one before the next hits, and Loesser's score, sending up everything from coffee breaks to changing sexual mores to the anything-to-get-ahead mindset with an infectious (and slightly winking) joy, don't need this kind of help.
All they do need are a talented cast led by a dynamic Finch, and they've got both. Radcliffe may not be a natural song-and-dance man, but he delivers the goods with a flair that catapults him past many of his more experienced cast mates. Throughout, he shines like a glimmering, worthy star, yet one who's not ashamed to work. What this means for Radcliffe's future Broadway-musical endeavors is not yet evident. But his work here demonstrates how his trying in this business has indeed led him and this production to bull-market success.