Esprit de Corporate

It's business as usual in well-oiled How to Succeed

End-of-the-century themes are big this year, and Phoenix Theatre has begun its 79th season with an unfortunately mawkish one. "The Way We Were" allows the company a new excuse to haul out the war-horses and to stage -- for the third time in eight years -- a '50s musical revue called Beehive.

In the meantime, the venerable company kicked things off last week with a bright, shiny rerun featuring some of our best local theater talent. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is peopled with skillful singers and dancers and better-than-competent comedians. It features lively (if none-too-original) choreography and smartly played tunes.

But along about the third musical number, and despite all its seamless scenery and superior singing, How to Succeed begins to look and sound like one of those industrial shows one might find at a retail convention. There's a sameness to the production's song and dance that makes for a very long three-hour musical.

Gas Ceiling: The cast members of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Ralph Rippie
Gas Ceiling: The cast members of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

How to Succeed is based on Shepherd Mead's 1952 movel about an advertising executive climbing the corporate ladder. The musical, which first opened on Broadway in 1961, satirizes big business with a bundle of bad business practices. Created by Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows, the show was only the fourth musical to win a Pulitzer Prize, and later snagged seven Tony Awards including Best Musical. Its 1995 Broadway revival, starring Matthew Broderick in his singing and dancing debut, was also a wild success.

The show recalls a time when women were subordinate to men and worked in offices in order to find husbands. How to Succeed's story focuses on go-getter J. Pierpont Finch (Ben Brittain) and his secretary, Rosemary (Jeanine Pacheco), who live in an ultra-corrupt corporate world that screams of '60s satire. Gal gets guy, but not before our hero climbs every corporate mountain, singing all the way.

There are things to like about this production. The set design is handsome and functional, with giant letter W's (for World Wide Wickets, the fictional firm of the story) doubling as desks and doorways. And, despite their sameness, several musical numbers sparkle. "Coffee Break" is wonderfully frenetic, piled with herky-jerky clerks in search of caffeine; and "Brotherhood of Man" is a raucous delight, and the one number in which the cast really cuts loose.

Among that large and capable cast, Michelle Gardner is a standout, chomping gum in a straight skirt as Smitty, a wisecracking stenographer. She has no song to herself, but her refereeing in "Been a Long Day" is fresh and full of funny bits. Dion Johnson's twitchy Mr. Gatch drew cheers; Jim Linde's full voice and expert playing redeem gruff Mr. Biggley; and rubber-faced Robert Harper is delightful as Frump, an annoying brown-noser.

In the lead, Brittain displays facile comic timing and a strong singing voice, particularly in "I Believe in You," one of the show's better-known songs and -- as staged here, at least -- one of its least interesting. Brittain and Pacheco really come to life in their duet, "Rosemary," and Pacheco's singing has never sounded better, although her performance as a sweet young thing is mostly a replay of her last several stage roles.

Similarity is the order of the day here, however, and the music follows suit: It's brightly played, but, ballad or march, it's all rendered with such fervor that slow tunes meant to vary the show's frantic pace -- like "Rosemary" and "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" -- sound rushed and off-kilter. The dancing is equally repetitive, each number chockablock with the same kickball changes and random gymnastics, and -- because director/choreographer Michael Barnard relies so much on synchronized dancing -- every song eventually erupts into a line of twirling chorus boys.

In the company's defense, the program as written is repetitive, with seven of its 13 songs reprised and many of its better jokes revisited. But redundant staging and monotonous musical direction make How to Succeed something of a failure. The end result is a lot like hearing Beethoven's Fifth played on a pocket comb: You marvel that it can be done at all, but after a little while you've had just about enough of it.

 
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