Some musicals withstand the test of time better than others. You would think a musical set in the 1960s workplace would be dated but when the musical is the 1961 Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, it shows us that some things are still relevant 53 years after the show’s Broadway premiere.
There have been two attempts to modernize this show on Broadway and while the Broadway revival in 1995 was very enjoyable with Matthew Broderick and later Ralph Macchio on tour, the 2011 attempt was not, due in part to casting people like Nick Jonas in the lead role who maligned most of the songs.
Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia PA is currently presenting this show in the way it should be seen by keeping the production set in the 60s and presenting the score in its original form. While the production doesn’t have a pop heartthrob as its lead, the show is strong by itself. So if you have the talent that Walnut Street Theatre does, that’s all you need.
Our hero J. Pierrepont Finch (Jeremy Morse) is a window washer with dreams of making it in big business. He keeps a book with him at all times that is a guide to making his dream a reality. On a whim he enters the office of the World Wide Wicket Company and begins his rise up the ladder of success.
…How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is still a masterpiece of the musical theatre, and Walnut Street Theatre’s production definitely proves that.
The World Wide Wicket Company has a colorful batch of characters. We have head of personnel Milt Gatch (Scott Langdon) who is promptly transferred to Venezuela after “inappropriate conduct” with his secretary. There’s the all American girl named Rosemary Pilkington (Becky Gulsvig) who is sweet on Finch, and of course no office would be complete without the whiney nephew of the boss. In this case it’s Bud Frump (Brian Shepard) who is the nephew of J.B. Biggley (Mark Jacoby), who under duress from his wife and Bud’s mom promotes Bud out of the mailroom to an executive position. Meanwhile Biggley is having an affair with a new secretary named Hedy La Rue (Amy Bodnar). Like I said things haven’t changed in all these years. Of course the main story is Finch’s and as hard as Bud tries to keep Finch down, he works his way to the top by a series of coincidences which include an idea for a TV show that goes seriously wrong and buttering up the boss by working long hours. From mailroom clerk to an executive position, Finch’s rise is astonishing and troubling to his co-workers but his perseverance and sometimes calculated approach to things gets him where he wants to be.
There are reasons why the book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert is still funny after all this time. Even though it is set in a specific time period, topics like waste and sexism in the workplace are still very much relevant. Things like people sending out a memo that says “We need to cut down on the number of memos being sent.”
The songs by Frank Loesser are equally as brilliant. Numbers such as “A Secretary is Not a Toy” and “I Believe in You” shows the range that Loesser put into one of his final scores for the stage.
Performance wise Jeremy Morse as Finch carries the production with a determined will plus great acting and singing chops. You are rooting for him the whole time. Becky Gulsvig as Rosemary Pilkington is charming as the secretary who wants to be noticed. Her vocals on “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” are a definite highpoint of the production. Joilet F. Harris as Biggley’s secretary Miss Jones makes a good showing with her feature as part of the rousing “Brotherhood of Man,” while Ed Romanoff as longtime mailroom head Mr. Twimble does “The Company Way” to perfection. Amy Bodnar as Hedy La Rue has all the sex appeal needed for this role and her duet with Jacoby called “Love From a Heart of Gold” was just lovely. I was not as happy with Brian Shepard’s take on Bud Frump as I should have been. As much as I don’t like over the top interpretations, I missed the hysteria that is usually associated with this character. Shepard sounded great on his feature “Coffee Break,” but overall if Bud isn’t funny then the character just comes off as mean and whiney.
I want to applaud director Casey Hushion for treating the material with total respect and letting the jokes land without any help from cheap sight gags.
Michelle Lynch’s choreography for “The Pirate Ballet” and “Brotherhood of Man” is energetic but not over choreographed like some other versions I’ve seen and that is a good thing.
I am always impressed with the orchestra under the direction of musical/vocal director Douglass G. Lutz when I go to a show at Walnut Street Theatre. Even though he only has eleven players, the orchestra reduction is a good representation of Robert Ginzler’s legendary original charts.
Robert Andrew Kovach’s set keeps us in the office proper as a frame but he manages to fit in many more locales of the building as needed. Here is a case where basically a unit set was used to full advantage.
Lisa Zinni’s costumes fit the period and added even more zing to the proceedings.
As I said before, things have not changed much in the work place since this show first premiered. There is still nepotism, and illicit affairs between the bosses and secretaries are still rampant. The most important thing though is that How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is still a masterpiece of musical theatre, and Walnut Street Theatre’s production definitely proves that. This is a wonderful production and even if “It’s Been a Long Day” for you, this show will give you a welcome jolt without an extra “Coffee Break.”
Advisory: Adult themes.
Running Time: Two Hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying runs through July 13, 2014 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street in Philadelphia PA. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at 215-574-3550 or by clicking here.