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How to Succeed in… Casting a Revival

Here’s the thing about How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: it is not a joke.  Sitting in the Hirschfeld Theater—where the show opened Sunday night—for two hours and forty minutes, I kept waiting for the joke.  Or the moral.  Or like… the point where it finally all made sense.

And that moment never came.

Not that the story itself doesn’t make sense.  It does.  It’s swift and clear and you always know exactly what is happening at every minute of the show.  The book is precise.  The songs tell the story, and they sound real good.  How to Succeed is a wonderful example of good, old-fashioned musical theater.

Unfortunately, no matter how deft Mr. Loesser and crew’s craft, this show just doesn’t make sense in 2011.  At least, not to this young professional (woman).  Because all of the scheming and brown nosing J Pierrepont Finch does instead of working never actually bites him on the ass.  And secretary Rosemary Pilkington actually means it when she dreams of the day she can stay at home and keep dinner warm while her workaholic husband ignores her constantly.  And at no point do you get the sense that anyone involved in this production in any way, sees the absurdity of what is happening on stage.

There is no tongue in cheek humor.  No knowing nod to the fact that all of this is ridiculous—in 1961 and today.  No bigger lesson to it all.  For Christ’s sake, you actually cheer for the scheming slacker to succeed without actually being good at anything beyond manipulating his colleagues.  It’s ludicrous.  In real life, you would want to kick his teeth in, much like his cast of colleagues.

And yet, despite the actual stupidity of the content, and some really enthusiastic arm swinging and kicking that I think we’re supposed to refer to as choreography, How to Succeed… succeeds.  Daniel Radcliffe probably deserves all the credit for that, too.

Perhaps it is because the line between actor and character is blurry, here.  Because you want to see “The Boy (wizard) Who Lived” live it up on the Great White Way.  But you root for Finch as he slides out of each new sticky situation he’s schemed his way into like he’s made of Teflon.  You can’t wait to see what genius piece of research or deft turn of phrase and happy stroke of luck is going to pull him through each steaming pile he’s stepped in.

Radcliffe’s performance is all hard work and passion. He busts his balls to do right by Finch and the show reaps the reward.  When you leave the theater, it’s pretty plain that the production would suffer without him.  Nothing would seem as impressive if we didn’t know that this was a big risk for Radcliffe, and a skill set he was not born with.  But it’s not just that the audience is charmed by Radcliffe’s hard work.  He makes that hunger—that hint of manic desperation to make the pieces fall into place— work for the character, too, even when Finch is doing his best succeed without working a day in his life.

As Finch, Radcliffe is charming, smart, quick witted and sharp tongued.  He has the perfect shit-eating grin.  His singing voice, though lacking in raw power, plays well in the theater and his dancing is shockingly good (it stops the show at least once, in fact).

How to Succeed is not going to change the world for anyone (besides, perhaps, Mr. Radcliffe).  And the material would probably have been better handled by someone who could re-imagine it for 2011.  Rob Ashford’s dull direction is only remarkable in the performance he created with Radcliffe, and his choreography needs to calm the fuck down.  The costumes are nice, but average—though they do make great use of a vivid blue that reflects Radcliffe’s startling eyes—and the set is both very pretty and very 1961, but it won’t knock your socks off either.  At the end of the day, this is merely a capable revival, carried by a breakout star.  But oddly enough, I’m not mad about it.  Radcliffe’s considerable charm and powerhouse performance were enough to win me over.  I’d pay to see it again.

Photo: Ari Mintz

{ 5 comments… add one }

  • Amanda March 28, 2011, 5:00 pm

    The show was a satire when it was written and now–in the wake of Mad Men–it is certainly a period piece. And a period piece can be nothing BUT dated. “Happy to say ‘good evening dear / I’m pregnant / What’s new with you?'” How could that line be interpreted as anything but a joke?

    • the mick March 28, 2011, 5:24 pm

      Unfortunately, it really, really doesn’t play as satire in this production. Like, at all. To the point where its hard to see that there is or was satire in the show at all ever.

      I was baffled.


  • Amanda March 29, 2011, 5:38 pm

    If any of the jokes don’t play as well, the fault lies with Radcliffe, not with Ashford, IMO. Except in the case of “I Believe in You,” a show-stopping number in most productions, which Ashford just…forgot to direct or choreograph, essentially leaving Harry Potter naked on stage to fend for himself.

    • the mick March 31, 2011, 11:49 am

      For me it wasn’t that the individual jokes didn’t play well. Many of those got laughs, even from me.

      But satire is about the bigger message. And that was completely lacking. That’s my problem with the production. It’s bloodless. It has no soul.

      I don’t think that’s the fault of the individual actors–Radcliffe or otherwise–they didn’t botch what they were asked to do. But they are asked to operate within the framework of the director’s vision. And for me, Ashford’s vision is incredibly dull. Sure, it looks real colorful and pretty on the stage. It sounds nice. But that’s it. Ashford did nothing but present the words on the page, no interpretation, no exploration of the larger commentary that a satire should possess.

      I mean… I have to say, I’m just not a fan of the material. As you said, it’s dated. And for me, it is also kind of… bloodless. Which exacerbates the situation. If I’m honest, it is entirely possible that there is no way to make this into something that I think of as a truly great musical, Ashford or otherwise. But I just really wish someone had tried.

  • itsdlevy April 2, 2011, 2:49 pm

    Have you ever seen the film? Although it cuts some major musical numbers, it captures the spirit of the original production (so I’m told… I’m way too young to have seen it.)

    Despite my misgivings about some of Des MacAnuff’s choices in the last revival (all those TVs!), he understood that the show is a cartoon and let it do what it’s supposed to do.

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