REVIEW: "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" — Rose Center Theater
Updated: Aug 2, 2019
“…Smartly Hilarious and a Don’t-Miss Summer Treat!”
"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" is as fast, funny and glitzy as it ever was. Nearly six decades after its premiere at the 46th Street Theater on Broadway, the Loesser-Burrows-Weinstein-Gilbert chef-d'oeuvre has re-emerged in a pristine revival at Rose Center Theater in Westminster.
Playing through August 11th, and Directed/Musically Directed by Tim Nelson, the musical’s satirical wit and cheerful heart remain forever young in a fable of blind business ambition that many people say was well ahead of its time.
But 1961 was long ago, and those times have since coarsened, public morals have become looser and political attitudes have been corrected. "How to Succeed…", however, isn't about corporate raiders, arbitragers, creative bookkeepers or even corrupt politicians. Its world is enclosed entirely within the glass-and-steel tower that is the World Wide Wicket Company headquarters in Manhattan. Under the classy, intelligent guidance of Director Nelson, along with Diane Makas and Jennifer Simpson-Matthews, whose choreography recalls Bob Fosse's original dances while interjecting much of their own artistry, the show is a triumph of contemporary Broadway know-how.
Most importantly, it has the most endearingly crafty character ever to scheme his way from window-washer to the executive washroom. He's J. Pierrepont Finch (Jeremiah Lussier – “Godspell,” “Into theWoods”), the gentle-mannered new hire at the company who specializes in charm and pluck, though sometimes vacillating between uncertainty and over-confidence. But beneath that “Huck Finn in a three-button suit” exterior, J. Pierrepont Finch is an epically gifted opportunist, a fellow with both eyes for the main chance when he arrives at World Wide Wicket.
The secret to his success is a handy little guidebook, named after the title, which he uses to navigate the treacherous waters of the corporate world. The book offers sage advice from choosing which company to work for — “It is essential that the company be a big one. It should be a least big enough so that nobody knows exactly what anyone else is doing,” — to choosing whom to have lunch with, to evaluating one’s secretary (for instance, if she’s pretty but can’t type, she’s trouble).
That sardonic view of big business springs from Shepherd Mead's bestselling book of the same name set in the original time period of the early sixties. Indeed, it's difficult to imagine this story taking place at any other time in history (the “sexual revolution”), when many of the principal players are women secretaries who we're assured are definitely not toys.
“No, my boy, not a toy…To fondle and dandle and playfully handle in search of some puerile joy. No, a secretary is not, definitely not, a toy.”
Yet the men's attitudes suggest otherwise, especially the most transparent executive in the company who instructs his other libidinous underlings on why they shouldn't do what he so clearly longs to. “A Secretary is Not a Toy” is, nonetheless, a most outrageously fun number, featuring high-energy dancing to the rat-a-tat sound of a typewriter, when suddenly all of the secretaries quickly rip the pages out of their typewriters at the same time. One secretary drops a stack of paper on the ground and all the businessmen surround her to pick up the pages simultaneously.
The musical was written by Abe Burrows (also the original show's director), Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, and inspired mostly by the title of Mead's best-selling collection of tongue-in-cheek maxims for junior executives. Not only has the score and book been brought to life at Rose Center Theater largely uncorrupted, but something of the sound, sense and tempo of the fun that all Broadway musicals delivered back then has been recreated on stage. This show moves. It's also lusty and powerful even when it is sweet.
Listening to Rosemary (Elizabeth Romero), the pretty, loyal, long-suffering secretary hopelessly in love with young Finch, who's hopelessly in love with getting ahead, you get a feeling of old-fashioned brassiness as her incredible voice sails through the theatre. When she sings, “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” or joins him in the beguiling two-part love song, “Rosemary,” the sentiments are pure, the voices are crystal-clear, but you also hear spunk and mettle mixed in, similar to that style from early theatre. But then, we are talking about the fabulously gifted Elizabeth Romero, so anything is possible.
Among her triple threat skills, Jimmy Award winner Ms. Romero is also a very talented dancer. While the role doesn’t necessarily call for Finch to dance a great deal, Ms. Romero’s giddy ballet turns and jetes during “Rosemary” certainly aggrandizes the song. As the alternately besotted and frustrated Rosemary, Ms. Romero was starkly juxtaposed to Mr. Lussier’s effervescent Finch.
Whenever someone asks Finch what his name is, for example, he rapidly answers, “F-I-N-C-H, Finch,” with a big cheesy smile on his face, taking every opportunity to promote himself. In his part, Mr. Lussier proves himself a showman of the first order, with a charming, charismatic stage presence and a killer smile. His adorable innocence is disarming as he practically bounces around the stage, popping onto his toes in eager-to-please sophomoric displays, all the while disguising his “barracuda” secret agenda.
As Bud Frump, Biggley’s obnoxious nephew who isn’t above using his family connections to get ahead, Sean McCrimmon adeptly schemes and whines as the character you love to hate.
Especially good also is Chris Caputo as J. B. Biggley, the boss whose ladder-climbing employee, Finch, is determined to fake it 'til he makes it, the man who loathes his offstage wife, who keeps a doxy on the side, and who secretly knits to calm his nerves. Mr. Caputo expertly portrays Biggley as somewhat of a self-important blowhard, and as head of the company, he makes sure everyone knows it. His downfall is of course, women, and he is regularly brought to his knees by many, including the comely Hedy LaRue (Tawni Bridenball). But his upswing is his big voice.
By far the most impressive musical numbers from Mr. Caputo are "Grand Old Ivy," an arresting show-stopper with an ingenious bit of staging, and (Oh, the irony!) "Brotherhood of Man." The former really showcases the comedic flair of Mr. Caputo (a wonderful revelation I was not expecting), and also highlights Finch’s hand jives with the brusque Biggley in another layer of antics to the college fight song. With high energy, both men describe how Old Ivy will “rip, rip, rip” the opposing football team “off the field.” Emphasis on the word “rip” adds to the musical’s characterization of the business world.
The latter is a thrilling baritone powerhouse of executives augmented with the rafter-rattling notes of Miss Jones, played enthusiastically by Meredith Woodson, receiving the kind of thunderous roar from the crowd that one so rarely hears in theatre these days.
Also front and center in the number, “Brotherhood of Man,” is the Chairman of the Board, Wally Womper (Robert Amberg), a grumpy looking man who is most of the time silent. When he does speak, he is revealed to be a charming man who is proud of his blue-collar background.
Ms. Bridenball, as Hedy, may appear dim-witted, but she knows how to manipulate any man to get what she wants. Hedy La Rue also wants to get ahead. “I thought you were going to help me be a big business woman like Helena Rubinstein or Betty Crocker?”
Yes, Ms. Bridenball definitely has all the va-va-voom for the role of the voluptuous, sexually-charged secretary as she showcases her perfect form to its bombshell best. In the cockeyed “Love From a Heart of Gold,” a bittersweet duet with Biggley, Ms. Bridenball famously shows off her operatic vocal range as well, and you realize why this character has endured all these years. Icing on the cake is when the stylish and free-spirited Hedy later appears in the second act as the pirate mascot to the company’s new “treasure hunt” advertising campaign. Hedy is played on alternate days by Malia Merrill, yet another marvelous casting decision for this juicy role.
Vincent Aniceto as Biggley’s right-hand man and backscratcher, Bert Bratt, is perfectly servile and obsequious in his very prominent role in the show. Mr. Aniceto, always surprising in his portrayals, creates another interesting personality as Personnel Officer Bratt, who may be the only one in the company actually doing his job. Although no solos are called for from Mr. Aniceto for his part, he assimilates beautifully into several of the company numbers and dances with great expertise.
Cliff Senior (“My Fair Lady,” “It’s a Wonderful Life”) excels as the fussy, old-fashioned Mr. Twimble, mail room supervisor for 25 years due to his lack of ambition and ability to remain unnoticed. He finally gets promoted to shipping, gives his old job to Finch, who in turn gives it away to Frump, looking for greener pastures. Mr. Senior’s memorable spot in “Company Way,” an instructive confession on how to keep your job without getting ahead, is quite revealing of the character:
Twimble – “I play it the company way. Wherever the company puts me, there I stay.”
Finch – “But what's your point of view?”
Twimble – “I have no point of view!”
Smitty, friend and confidant of Rosemary, is played with clear-eyed practicality by the marvelously talented Stephanie Bull (“The Secret Garden,” “Sweeney Todd”). Smitty is less idealistic than Rosemary and has a painfully dry sense of humor. During a scene at the elevator near the end of the workday, Smitty helps Rosemary and Finch set up a first date in the adorably awkward, "Been a Long Day.” She is also front and center in “Paris Original,” and “Cinderella, Darling,” featuring old sentiments and wickedly stylized movements. A graduate of PCPA and Cornish College of the Arts, Ms. Bull sports an array of deco designs for the show and sizzles in her character’s rendition.
One of the curiosities of this show is that Loesser's up-front comic songs have aged as well as the ballads and rousing satirical numbers. Even the goofy “Yo Ho Ho” gets an enthusiastic kick line. One other such tune is an amusing, jittery number during the crisis of running out of coffee (“Coffee Break”), featuring the entire ensemble and company dancing in a kinetic-zombie style – writhing, twitching, squirming – while Stephanie Bull’s Smitty belts out a lament about a lack of caffeine. The cries of “Something within me dies” and “Somehow the soul no longer tries” are surely familiar sentiments by all. Hey, I’ve been there.
Miss Jones (Meredith Woodson) is the all-business executive secretary to the head of the company. She is the one that keeps Biggley in line, and all of the employees try to stay out of her way. She breaks this mold during the song, “Paris Original,” but especially in her beforementioned “Brotherhood of Man” with her upbeat solo.
Other noteworthy performers are Miss Krumholtz (Kristen Henry), the professional secretary that is completely loyal to whatever executive she is assigned to that day. Ms. Henry shines brightly in the all-girl song, “Paris Original.” Then there's Gatch (Erik Duane), Head of Plans and Systems, a confident, bold executive who gets reassigned after fraternizing with Hedy. Benjamin Burton Daniel Ovington, the tall, handsome new head of advertising, is portrayed by Mark Wickham. Ovington is the golden boy that’s thought to be an ad genius until Finch makes short work of him.
The Voice is masterfully VO’d by the one and only Tom Orr. Jenkins is played by Chris Fine, Tackaberry is J.D. Rinde, Toynbee is Giorgio Selvaggio and Johnson is Troy Ozuna. Matthews is depicted by Rob Bergman, who also doubles as the Policeman, Trevin Sephenson is the TV Announcer, Taylor Bannert plays Peterson and the velvet-voiced Patrick McCormick is Davis.
The Ensemble includes Olivia Aniceto, Sandra Aniceto, Sofia Aniceto, Allison Bossart, Christina Brady, Susann Cellier, Robbynn Green, Gloria Henderson, Rylie Herbel, Taylor Herbel, Bettina Houser, Chloe Hubbard, Devyn Lietz, Jillian Matthews, Alexandra Mezza, Seth Merrill, Minhquan Nguyen, Teresa Orr, Matthew Rangel, Jamie Roberts, Cat Sacksteder, Hannah Schooner, Mulu Skinner-Harrison, Natasha Sokoloff, Marlee Tierney, Chris Vournas and Maddie Webb. All have exceptional vocal and dance skills.
Costume Design is by Carole Zellinger, Prop Design is by Trish Merrill and Diana Arroyo and Lighting, Tech and Set Design is by the ubiquitous Chris Caputo.
“How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” is currently playing at Rose Center Theater in Westminster through August 11th. Overall, it’s great fun, and a genuinely substantial heart-warming piece. You will even find yourself rooting for Finch to actually succeed, regardless of some of his morally dubious actions. Ticket information is at: https://www.rosecentertheater.com/
This show has the highest recommendation!
The Show Report