The bouncy overture winds down, the curtain rises and we find a young man in coveralls descending from above in the Music Theater Work’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
J. Pierrepont Finch, an ambitious young window washer, is discovered reading Shepherd Mead’s tongue-in-cheek instructional book of the same name, while dangling from scaffolding above Madison Avenue.
Narrated for this production by NPR news quiz host, Peter Sagal, the book progresses chapter-by-chapter, charting the recommended course for Ponty’s rise to power in the business world.
Now, bear in mind that this how-to manual, a 1952 best-seller by Shepherd Mead, subtitled “The Dastard’s Guide to Fame and Fortune,” was written as a parody of the popular self-help books of that era. Between this book’s unfailing advice and Finch’s pluck and pizzazz, this likable kid is undoubtedly destined to rise to the top…or is he?
It’s hard to believe that this show which set a new standard for musical comedy satire, is almost 60 years old now. The hummable score by Frank Loesser (“Guys & Dolls,” “Most Happy Fellow”) features a libretto by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, adapted from Mead’s humorous book of the same name.
The musical has a field day lampooning the seeming ease with which an entry level employee can rise to the top of the corporate ladder. A film preserving the performances of most of the original cast was released in 1967. This 1962 Pulitzer Prize and eight-time Tony Award winner has been successfully revived twice on Broadway, earning additional Tony Award nominations and wins.
Throughout the play, whenever it seems the darkest, the young, eager beaver aligns with precisely the right people to learn from and suck up to, as well as the easiest loopholes to infiltrate, in order to reach the top. And when all those elements are out of reach, Ponty employs his considerable boyish charm, ultimately helping him to achieve success.
Filled with sexism, chauvinism and nepotism, some theatergoers might find the themes of this hilarious musical objectionable by today’s standards; but, keep in mind, the show is a scathing satire and an historical look at a bygone era.
During the Eisenhower and Nixon years when this musical takes place, these were commonplace problems that were rampant in corporate America. Today’s theatergoers may laugh and shake their heads at how far we’ve come, especially in gender equality. But…have we really?
The script’s broad humor and the bouncy bite of its songs and lyrics exaggerate and poke fun at dimwitted business executives. It satirizes their reluctance to put women into positions of authority and be paid equally for their work.
The musical also exposes the blind objectification of women, more prevalent then, and, certainly, not entirely behind us. Sadly, during that era, a secretary’s goal for success could only be achieved by marrying her boss.
Rudy Hogenmiller once again demonstrates his well-honed directorial talent and knowhow with this fast-paced production. Clearly Hogenmiller understands and loves the kind of broad humor that infuses the show’s cartoon-like quality. His production takes off at the starting gate with dialogue, staging and musical tempos at a breakneck pace that never lets down until the curtain call.
Choreographer Clayton Cross enhances the play’s comedy, invigorating the musical with quirky, stylized dance moves that reflect the aesthetic of the 60’s.
His infusion of a chorine tap break in the middle of “Cinderella Darling,” for instance, is genius; the manic athleticism found in “Coffee Break” is inspired, caffeinated and addictive; and Cross’ corporate revival meeting version of “Brotherhood of Man” creates the perfect exclamation point to conclude this musical.
Musical director Roger L. Bingaman uses Frank Loesser’s storytelling genius to embellish his score. As always, Bingaman skillfully conducts his talented, 22-member orchestra to bring out the best of each performer.
He also incorporates some unique instrumentation in order to add an unusual and humorous texture to score, such as the humorous buzz of electric razors during “I Believe in You.” A salute to the romantically dramatic music of Edvard Grieg in the song “Rosemary,” the finale to the first act, is both beautiful and fun.
In the leading role of J. Pierrepont Finch, young, multi-gifted Chicago actor Ken Singleton is simply sensational.
Understanding the concept of how less can be more, he underplays the role, just a bit, allowing his supporting cast the opportunity to shine with their over-the-top characterizations.
Singleton has a crystal clear tenor with just the right amount of vibrato. In addition to the syncopated title song, Singleton delights with “The Company Way,” “Grand Old Ivy,” “I Believe in You,” “Brotherhood of Man” and his showpiece number, “Rosemary.”
In addition to his topnotch musicality, this talented actor has good looks, boyish charm, great comic timing, incredible dancing skill and a scene-stealing grin. They add up to a winning combination that makes Ken Singleton the perfect leading man, particularly for this musical.
He’s matched note-for-note by lovely Nicole Arnold as his leading lady, Rosemary Pilkington. Previously seen on stages all over Chicago, Arnold has an indomitable energy that drives every song, move and smile.
Whether imagining an ideal married life with Finch, being “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” or hoping to dazzle him in her new “Paris Original,” Arnold is the perfect Rosemary. She never plays the role as a helpless ingenue, but as a driven, young woman who knows what she wants and is willing to do anything to achieve her goal. This determination especially pours forth in her 11th hour reprise of “I Believe in You.”
Each and every supporting character is played with perfect vim and vigor. Multitalented Rick Rapp, so wonderful in countless recent Musical Theater Works productions, finally gets to shine in a leading role as J.B. Biggley.
He makes a likable, yet hardheaded, old-school president of the World Wide Wickets company. Played with get-up-and-go gusto, and peppered with a weakness for flattery and beautiful women, Rapp is wonderfully funny in this role.
As his leading lady, Nancy Hays, another Music Theater Works alum, is delicious as sexy Hedy La Rue. The epitome of the dumb blonde, she’s a woman who won’t allow herself to be taken advantage of; she has her own agenda of how to succeed without really trying.
Hays plays Hedy as if the role had been written expressly for her. As foxy as she is beautiful, Nancy, who practically erupts out of her low-cut dresses, makes the most of her physical prowess, mining comedy from every line and movement. Her schmaltzy duet with Rapp, “Love From a Heart of Gold,” becomes a sweetly welcome moment of sincerity, in a show stuffed with so much broad comedy.
Maisie Rose makes her Music Theater Works debut and fires with both barrels as Smitty, a fellow secretary and Rosemary’s gal pal. She shines in every musical number, especially “Cinderella Darling,” the sweetly manipulative “It’s Been a Long a Day” and, one of the show’s highlights,“Coffee Break.”
Jake Stempel, as Biggley’s spoiled nephew, Bud Frump, plays his role just a tad too much over-the-top. He loses his character in a clownish caricature, and could do well to dial it back a few notches. When not pushing, Stempel is an entertaining actor, as remembered for his work in Mercury Theater’s “The Bardy Bunch,” as well as TATC’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”
Here Stempel creates a conniving, brown-nosing mama’s boy who’ll stop at nothing, including nepotism, to rise up the corporate ladder. Along with Rose, Stempel leads the entire ensemble in the memorable “Coffee Break.” However, by the end of the show, the actor’s rabid ravings have grown tiresome and the audience no longer finds him funny.
In every other way, this production is enthralling and practically flawless. It’s fast-paced, filled with wonderful songs that theatergoers will leave humming and comic characters who won’t soon be forgotten.
Special kudos to Kirk Swenk (Twimble/Wally Womper), Kent Joseph (Gatch) and Liz Norton (Miss Jones) in strong, memorable supporting roles, equally stupendous and sidesplitting, as is the entire talented ensemble of singers and dancers.
A jaw-dropping, eye-popping, versatile scenic design, co-created by Christopher Rhoton and Shane Cinal, work hand-in-hand with Andrew H. Meyers’ creative lighting motifs. Sanja Manakoski’s rainbow-colored, exaggerated period fashions, along with Alice Salazar’s bouncy hair and wig designs, add so much to each character.
In all, Rudy Hogenmiller, and his creative team, have guided a talented cast of triple-threats to instigate laughter and instruct audiences how to do things “The Company Way,” while effortlessly rising up the corporate ladder and achieving musical harmony and hilarity, all at the same time.
DETAILS: “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” is at Music Theater Works at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston, I through June 16, 2019. For tickets and other information call (847) 920-5360 or visit MusicTheaterworks.
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