Reviewed by George Basler
Watching the onstage antics of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is like looking at an artifact from the Mesozoic Era when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
The dinosaurs in this case are the male employees of the World Wide Wicket Company Inc., who personify the male chauvinism of American corporate life circa 1960.
While that age has largely passed into the dustbin of history, How to Succeed thankfully hasn’t. Despite some slow moments, the show remains as spritely and funny as when it first opened on Broadway in 1961 on its way to a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
The Ti-Ahwaga Community Players catch this playfulness in a frothy and agreeable production that opened this past weekend (June 3-5) at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center in Owego. The large, 31-member cast, directed by James Osborne, does a uniformly fine job in presenting the satirical send-up of the American Dream,
How to Succeed has a great pedigree. Frank Loesser, a Broadway giant, composed the score. Abe Burrows, another giant, wrote the book along with Jacob Weinstock and Willie Gilbert. It was based on Shepherd Mead’s novel.
In a way the show resembles Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, which won the Academy Award for best picture a year earlier. But while Wilder’s movie was caustic, the musical’s tone is completely different. The characters are played for laughs, not loathsomeness. The show is more whimsical than biting. Most importantly, it’s darn funny.
A big reason for the success are Loesser’s songs. Written in classic Broadway style, the songs sparkle with intelligence and wit. Strangely enough, with the exception of “I Believe in You,” none became standards, possibly because it’s hard to separate them from the context of the show’s plot. But the score is a triumph for Loesser, who had the reputation as one of Broadway’s most versatile composers.
Another delight is seeing how Loesser, Burrows and the other creators transformed the requisite clichés of an office farce — a bumbling chief executive, a sexpot secretary, a loyal girlfriend, etc. — into something original and fresh.
The musical focuses on the shenanigans of J. Pierpont Finch, an energetic go-getter, as he connives has way up the corporate ladder from window washer to chairman of the board. (Think Horatio Alger meets Machiavelli.)
Ian MacDonald brings a winning personality and good singing voice to the role. While he lacks the mischievous twinkle of Robert Morse, who originated the role on Broadway, MacDonald is funny in his own right and makes the character likeable even as he hatches his next ploy. You root for Finch while chuckling at his brazen antics.
MacDonald’s performance is matched by that of Anna Simek, who plays the female lead, Rosemary, a secretary who pines for Finch’s love and attention. Simek has great comic sense and a killer wardrobe, complete with a pillbox hat and tailored outfits that make her look like a young Jacqueline Kennedy. Her song, “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” is well sung and opens the musical on a high note.
Rosemary, of course, is a caricature of the doting housewife of the 1950s (think of Donna Reed on steroids) and, as such, could be cloying and annoying. But Simek’s performance makes her so sparkling and sweet that only the most humor-deprived will be upset.
William Clark Snyder is also top-notch as J.B. Biggley, the bumbling boss of World Wide Wickets. The character is basically a dolt, and Snyder plays his befuddlement well as he’s manipulated by Finch, henpecked by his wife and manipulated by the office sexpot, who also happens to be his secret mistress. Snyder also has a competent singing voice that he shows off well in the duets “Grand Old Ivy” and “Love From a Heart of Gold.”
While the Ti-Ahwaga production is generally a delight, it does drag at times. Osborne’s direction is a bit choppy with numerous blackouts stopping the flow of the action. The first act runs 90 minutes and plays long. It’s almost too much of a good thing. This may sound heretical, but the creators could have tightened the action a little bit.
But the high moments outnumber the low ones. A major high is the big production number, “Brotherhood of Man,” which comes near the end of the show. In Broadway parlance it’s an “11 o’clock number,” designed to have the audience leave the theater on a high note. The Ti-Ahwaga production succeeds admirably in this regard.
Other standout numbers include “A Secretary is Not a Toy”; “Coffee Break,” in which the assembled office workers have a major meltdown when their caffeine doesn’t show up, and “Paris Original,” when the secretaries show up at an office party wearing the same dress. The nine-piece orchestra was led by the show’s music director, Colin DeLap.
The supporting cast is top-notch. Morgan Allen is agreeably perky as Smitty, Rosemary’s loyal best friend, and her performance of the number “Been a Long Day,” which is one of Loesser’s many gems, is excellent.
Katie Bowers was an absolute hoot as Hedy LaRue, the sexpot secretary (the role is double cast with Francesa Decker also playing the part). Christine Ryder has fine moments as Miss Jones, J.B. Biggley’s secretary. Ron Creighton steals his part of the show in his duet with MacDonald, “Company Way.”
A special mention goes to Reidan Pitarresi who plays the musical’s comic villain, Bud Frump. His portrayal of unlikeable vindictiveness mixed with bumbling ineptitude is hilarious. He makes the character someone you just love to hate.
Diane Arbes did the costumes that accurately catch the period.
How to Succeed is very much an old-fashioned Broadway musical in terms of style and tone, but it’s old-fashioned in the best sense. The show is just plain fun.
IF YOU GO: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying will run through June 19 at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center, 42 Delphine St., Owego. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors); call 687-2130, or visit