How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical closes out the 205th season of Philadelphia's historic Walnut Street Theatre.
For a musical that not only wears its AARP eligibility on its sleeve but rolls around in the dusty cultural commentary of the 1950s and '60s, there's not a trace of rust to be found on the well-oiled production of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying now running at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre.
Director Casey Hushion's concise, lively staging maintains all of the show's original charm — a charm that now falls into the category of "old-fashioned" — while allowing it room enough to breathe and even find its footing in the contemporary social and economic climate. The 1961 musical's surprisingly timely content speaks to the quality of Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, which follows the undeserved yet meteoric corporate rise of J. Pierrepont Finch from window washer to company-board chairman.
Jeremy Morse leads the talented cast as Pierrepont (or "Ponty" as he prefers to be called), the paradigm of an ambitious young man ready to take on the world with nothing but a squeegee and a self-help book (hence, the musical's title). Ponty quickly finds his way to the World Wide Wicket Company, where, by following the tome's simple tenants, he maneuvers through the muck of company nepotism, romantic entanglements, and corporate scandal to climb from the mailroom to the top of the company ladder — knowledge and experience not required.
Morse amps up the Eddie Haskell persona and nasal vocal affects famously attributed to Pierrepont in his past Broadway incarnations by Tony winners Robert Morse (no relation) and Matthew Broderick, and most recently, Daniel Radcliffe, with whom Morse most closely shares the vitality of fresh-faced youth. Yet even with his inflated performance, further exaggerated by the balletic physicality he lends to the role, Morse keeps the shadow of his underdog window-washer identity just beneath the surface of his overpoweringly manipulative front. Like the population of college graduates venturing out into today's stark economic climate, Morse's Ponty is just another wet-behind-the-ears kid trying his luck at corporate success in the most effective and efficient way he knows how. This endearing innocence, despite our better judgment, keeps us rooting for his unmerited success, even as he hoodwinks every World Wide Wicketer in sight.
Brian Shepard perfectly captures the role of gangly mamma's boy Bud Frump — mailroom worker, nephew to the big boss J.B. Biggley, and the first in Ponty's line of sacrificial lambs. Tony nominee Mark Jacoby fills Biggley's imposing shoes equally well with a dry, understated humor that compliments the lurid antics of his blonde, leggy mistress Hedy La Rue, played by the flamboyant Amy Bodnar. The brassy Joliet F. Harris, meanwhile, charms as Biggley's personal secretary Miss Jones, who also has a hand in Ponty's rise. However, as the young protégé leaves a trail of employees in his wake, his plans are derailed by the beautiful young secretary Rosemary Pilkington, played by the charming and pure-voiced Becky Gulsvig, who manages to insert strength into a character plagued with the starry-eyed song "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm." Though her prim office attire and voluminous brown wig (designed by Lisa Zinni) scream Donna Reed, Frank Loesser's score seems to be as much a living, breathing document as the American Constitution, allowing for irony to appear and disappear with a shift in the political wind — a malleability of which Hushion has intelligently taken full advantage.
Though individual performances do stand out, the production's most impressive quality is its cohesive ensemble, which fluidly maneuvers through Robert Andrew Kovach's sleek sets, largely due to Michele Lynch's exciting and creative choreography. Lynch particularly delivers on the production's climactic dance number, "Brotherhood of Man," which silently promises a showstopping moment in every production of How to Succeed. Miss Jones adds some much needed sisterhood to the tap-dancing boy's club as Harris enjoys a soulful moment in the spotlight, though Morse energetically leads the charge as the glue that welds the sturdy production together.
Members of today's Lean In generation may be tempted to tuck How to Succeed behind a pane of museum plexiglass, as the days of the subservient secretary seem to be a thing of the dark ages. Yet, with a good old fashioned spit shine, Walnut Street has proven that the old gem of musical theater has plenty of good years left to go.