By DANTE J.J. BEVILACQUA
For 21st Century Media
The Walnut Street Theatre’s production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” is hilarious, charming and thoroughly entertaining.
“How to Succeed” is the best kind of old-school musical comedy, thanks to a peppy and impish book (by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert) and a savvy score by “Guys and Dolls” composer Frank Loesser.
The original Broadway production opened in 1961, and won seven Tony awards, as well as the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The musical is more than 50 years old, and the life of a corporate executive has changed significantly in that time.
Brazenly smacking of sexism, chauvinism and nepotism, some may find it objectionable by today’s standards, but it remains an historical look at a bygone era.
The show works beautifully in its original period, and the underlying issues of ambition, conformity, and job security are as relevant as ever.
In this shrewd satire of office politics, amoral protagonist J. Pierrepont Finch brownnoses and schemes his way up from the mail room to the boardroom, dodging romantic entanglement with Rosemary, a coworker who has her sights set on him.
This WST production turns out to have near-perfect pitch. It is merry but never gaudy or gauche, starting with Douglass Lutz’s orchestra and its refined musical tone of the 60’s that greatly enhances both the mood and era of the show.
“How to Succeed” runs riot through the offices, mail room, conference rooms and elevators of World Wide Wickets, a corporation populated by people with varying degrees of ambition, deviousness, guile, naivete, envy, lust and possibilities for nepotism.
Ideas and skills are not of paramount importance here. Keeping your head down, your ears open and your ability to flatter in top form IS of the essence. And if in doubt, consult “the book,” whose instructions for getting ahead are ideally voiced by the sly fox J. Pierrepont Finch; a young, ambitious man who wants to make it big turns to a self-help book about succeeding in business.
By following its instructions he proceeds from window washer to mail room clerk to junior executive, eventually all the way to chairman of the board. His meteoric rise is not only facilitated by his following the book’s advice, but also a lot of happy accidents and his undying charm and likability.
Jeremy Morse shows us a man who self-invents because he has so little at the start. Thus you pull for him as he climbs the ladder at World Wide Wickets simply by paying attention to two basic rules: 1) flatter and agree with those in power and become one of their protectees, and 2) undermine everyone in your way.
You likely know a student of the postmodern J. Pierrepont school — I can think of a couple — which is testament to the abiding power of the satirical impulse behind this show.
What gives this show its pizzazz are the developed characters: Finch is the charming conniver that we gleefully root for and Jeremy Morse lands him with deft aplomb. Broadway veteran actor Marc Jacoby is a consummate pro who, as the commanding corporate president anchors the show. Brian Shepard plays Bud Frump, the arch rival to Finch’s ambition and Mr. Shepard sketches Bud as a creepy nerd which produces many laughs from the audience.
As Rosemary, the secretary out to nab Finch, Becky Gulsvig is delightful. She has a lovely voice and is given ample time to shine with some of the show’s signature songs, “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” and “Paris Original” where she’s joined with other members of the secretarial pool, including Cary Miller, a standout as Smitty.
Amy Bodnar as Hedy La Rue, turns in a glorious performance. Playing the role of a stereotypical blond air-head who is Biggley’s mistress, Bodnar demonstrates exceptional dialect and timing. The remainder of the cast is superb in supporting the leads.
The production has a colorful game show look and a groovy ‘60s vibe. The dances are witty and exuberant, particularly the Fosse-honoring “Coffee Break” and the sublime “Brotherhood of Man.”
How to Succeed may be winking at the audience the whole time, but you can’t ignore the jarring resemblance to today’s corporate culture, where bad ideas are overvalued, good ones are hard to come by, and the glass ceiling is still fully in tact.
Is this a manual for how to succeed in business? You bet, especially if it is “the business of show.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”
WHERE: The Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia
WHEN: Now through July 13.
INFO.: Call (215) 574-3550 or check www.walnutstreettheatre.org.