That go-getting whiz kid J. Pierpont Finch once again zipped his way up the corporate ladder this past Sunday as Musical Theatre West’s Reiner Reading Series dazzled yet again (and with a mere 25 hours of rehearsal) in their one-night-only concert staged revival of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.
Any Broadway buff will tell you that How To Succeed (or H2$ as it’s come to be known) began its musical comedy life over half a century ago when a pair of legends, Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows, decided to adapt Shepherd Mead’s 1952 book of the same name for the Great White Way.
Based on Mead’s own experience in the corporate world, but told with considerably more tongue-in-cheek, Burrows’ book (co-written with Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert) introduces us to “Ponty” Finch (Jordan Lamoureux), a lowly window-washer toiling high up the Manhattan skyscraper headquarters of the World Wide Wicket Company with nothing but Mead’s book as his guide to corporate stardom.
Following the author’s advice to the letter—with a bit of truth-stretching thrown in for good measure—Ponty soon finds himself working in the WWW mail room, “soon” being about five minutes after going through the building’s revolving doors for very first time.
Not only has Ponty almost immediately made the acquaintance of WWW CEO J.B. Biggley (David Kirk Grant), he has caught the eye of perky, pretty, marriage-minded secretary Rosemary Pilkington (Ashley Fox Linton) and raised the hackles of fellow mail-room worker Bud Frump (Dino Nicandros), Biggley’s nephew by marriage and not at all averse to using nepotism to beat Ponty up the ladder to the top.
May the cleverer, craftier man win!
A satirical look at the contemporary business world when it debuted on Broadway in 1961, H2$ has since then become a picture-perfect period-piece portrait of a male-dominated universe in which the highest rank a “girl” could aspire was to secretary to the head honcho, the job held at WWW by the conspicuously single Miss Jones (Jill Van Velzer), whose top-of-the-female-ladder position keeps on taking second rung to any pretty young secretary lucky enough to marry her boss.
As for life out in the suburbs, Rosemary makes it abundantly clear in song that she’ll be “Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm” no matter how late “he comes wearily home from down town,” even if that means “bask[ing] in the glow of his perfectly understandable neglect.” (Cries of “Misogynistic!” are, I believe, disproven by Loesser’s clearly tongue-in-cheek lyrics, though they may well have been taken at face value back in ‘61.)
Supporting characters include personnel manager Mr. Bratt (Zachary Ford), 25-year mailroom vet Mr. Twimble (Randy Brenner), and Smitty (Kirklyn Robinson), Rosemary’s wise-cracking best friend and fellow secretary at World Wide Wickets. (Burrows’ book leaves it to our imaginations what exactly a “wicket” is and why so many businesses seem to need scads and scads of them.)
Last to join the company but definitely not least is the va-va-voomy Hedy LaRue (Madison Claire Parks), Biggly’s dizzy blonde mistress grown tired of days spent alone in their high-rise love nest and eager to join the secretarial pool despite a conspicuous lack of skills, a deficiency she more than makes up for in curves.
Though some Broadway buffs might beg to differ, this reviewer considers Loesser’s H2$ score the finest of his all-too-brief career, topping both Guys And Dolls and The Most Happy Fella with one catchy song after another, beginning with the hits “I Believe In You” and “The Brotherhood Of Man” and continuing with the lesser-known but equally infectious “The Company Way,” “Been A Long Day,” “Rosemary,” and the title song.
Times and attitudes may have changed, but Loesser’s clever lyrics to “Coffee Break” (“If I can’t make three daily trips, where shining shrine benignly drips, and taste cardboard between my lips, something within me dies, lies down and something within me dies.”) and “A Secretary Is Not A Toy” (“A secretary is not a thing wound by key, pulled by string. Her pad is to write in and not spend the night in, if that’s what you plan to enjoy. No!”) remain every bit as sharp in 2015 as they were when written.
No, indeed, musicals don’t come any more entertaining than the 54-year-old H2$, and with David Lamoureux doing double duty as both director and musical director, the latest from the Reiner Reading Series proved one of the series’ finest (and that is saying something indeed).
Sets may be integral to any fully-staged production, but imagination is a powerful thing, and with nothing more than a pair of rectangular folding tables (the kind you might find in this or that school cafeteria) and a bunch of folding chairs, director Lamoureux gave us assorted offices, the executive washroom, and various other locales, each distinct from the other.
Add to this Lamoureux’s delightful musical staging (the caffeine-withdrawal twitches in “Coffee Break” a particular treat) and Sunday’s audience was treated to yet another demonstration of the abundance of talent the eldest Lamoureux sibling brings to the L.A. musical theater scene.
Oh, and did I mention that director/musical director Lamoureux also voiced H2$’s cleverly-written narration from Mead’s original book.
Key to the success of any H2$ is its casting, and director Lamoureux could not have found a more winning couple of leads than younger brother Jordan and Jordan’s real-life fiancée to play Ponty and Rosemary, nor more talented supporting players than Grant, Nicandros, Parks, Robinson, and the rest of the stellar H2$ ensemble.
Combining the boy-next-door qualities we’ve seen in Into The Woods, Call Me Madam, and 110 In The Shade with the devilish twinkle that helped him win a Best Lead Actor Scenie for 3-D Theatricals’ Damn Yankees!, Lamoureux made for an utterly irresistible J. Pierpont Finch, proving himself as fine a singer as he is an actor and holding the audience in the palm of his hand from Ponty’s first entrance.
Linton gave Rosemary a just-right combination of prettiness, femininity, and spunk sure to win any young exec’s heart, and as Lamoureux’s real-life love, she and her costar demonstrated the kind of onstage chemistry that can’t be faked.
Grant’s J.B. Bigley was yet another colorful performance from the SoCal musical theater favorite, Robinson made for a fabulously smart-and-sassy Smitty—with power pipes to match, and a deliciously all-business Van Velzer turned Miss Jones’ “The Brotherhood Of Man” into a justified cheer-getter.
Brenner shone twice in a pair of cameos, first as Twimble (with a show-stopping “The Company Way”) and later as Chairman of the Board Wally Womper. Ford was terrific too as personnel manager Bratt, and when the always extraordinary Jeff Skowron appears in a cameo role as he did on Sunday as Mr. Ovington, audiences are guaranteed a scene-stealing treat.
True, Nicandros’ darkly serious take on Bud Frump did lose the character the abundance of laughs a more flamboyant performance has guaranteed Bad Boy Bud since Charles Nelson Reilly won a Tony for originating the role on Broadway, but the talented up-and-comer’s approach to playing the boss’s conniving nephew is a legitimate (if less scene-stealing) one.
Topnotch support was provided by SoCal favorites Rachel Davis, Marisa Field, Frankie Marrone, Michael Scott Harris (Mr. Tacaberry), William Martinez (Mr. Toynbee), Jane Papageorge, Larry Raben (Mr. Gatch), Adam Trent (Mr. Jenkins), and Jon M. Wailin.
Finally, if I’ve left off Miss Hedy LaRue from my list of raves, it’s simply because last does indeed mean best (or at least most revelatory) from the Broadway-bound Parks, heretofore known for roles that showcase quite possibly the most glorious soprano in town. (Her Laurey in Oklahoma! and Marsinah in Kismet won Parks a Musical Theater Debut Of The Year Scenie.) Topped by a flame-red wig and in a dress that clung wherever a clingy dress should cling, Parks’ Hedy was simply scrumdiddlyumptious, proving that curvaceous redheads can rival the dumbest “proverbial dumb blonde” while demonstrating comedic gifts as finely honed as Parks’ legit vocal chops.
Musical director Lamoureux benefitted from yet another Broadway-scale, Broadway-caliber orchestra provided by Los Angeles Musicians Collective, making this How To Succeed succeed as ear-pleasingly as the best Original Broadway Cast recording.
As in any concert staged reading, design elements were kept to an absolute minimum, but Oliver’s Attic merits special mention for a multitude of Paris originals, each as “sleek and chic and magnifique” as the next.
Jon Campbell was sound engineer and Benjamin Karasic served as technical director.
Reiner Reading Series Michael Betts and David Lamoureux would surely want to add their own thanks to series underwriters Ken & Dottie Reiner, with additional funding provided by Ackerman Family/Evalyn M. Bauer Foundation, Kathy Baker Campbell, and Laura Killingsworth.
From contemporary spoof to delightful period piece, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying has aged quite nicely indeed. Even minus sets, complex lighting, and multiple costume changes, it made for one simply sensational Sunday.
University Theatre, California State University, Long Beach
March 8, 2015