By Patrick O’Brien
These days, office floor plans may be more open than cubicle’d; the color schemes, more exposed brick than Day-Glo stucco. But most other things haven’t changed in the 60 years (!) since Frank Loesser’s musical satire How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying first hit Broadway right between the eyes and won a Pulitzer for its efforts.
Low-level functionaries still run everything while receiving none of the credit. Business and pleasure still commingle to disastrous results anyone can see a mile off. Advertising staff are still disposable.
For a piece often labeled as dated, How to Succeed… still has much to impart to the curious, especially the up-and-coming generation entering what can laughingly be called “the workforce.” What’s conniving to the old, established and elephantine, is sensible to the young, green and limber — why shouldn’t they take advantage of that?
Unapologetic, for sure, and that’s just how Music Theater Works’ Artistic Director Rudy Hogenmiller likes it and directs it, a gleeful sound in a season-long parting shot before he resigns.
His most crucial assignment is filling the central role of J. Pierrepont Finch. You have to love the guy, even when he’s screwing over every oh-so-deserving stuffed shirt on his way up the corporate ladder. Ken Singleton is ideal; he looks positively unassuming, decidedly non-conniving…right up until he opens his mouth and a wonderful, driving sound comes out, confidently riding the waves of Loesser’s score while merrily tossing off the brilliant, flashy, substance-free corporate clichés of Abe Burrows’s zingy book — the pep talks, ad pitches and a foot-stomping gospel number dedicated to saving his own ass, all while staying a step ahead of Biggley’s nepotistic nephew, the love-to-hateable Bud Frump (Jake Stempel).
Next to unethical business practices, the whole show is a love letter to the baritone, really. How nice it is to have three of them; besides Singleton, we also have Rick Rapp as fuddy-duddy CEO J.B. Biggley, and Michael Swisher as the marginally more ethical personnel man Bert Bratt. (Marginally.) And how nice it is to have a full orchestra for this shoo-bee-doo score; Roger L. Bingaman whips his pit through swing, soft-shoe and samba to great effect.
How nice, too, it is to have a solid core of female actors. They’re not much beyond a corps of secretaries/prospective executives’ wives, no denying. But, handled with care (as they are here), it becomes clear they’re more than happy to help an upstart like Finch shake things up after bristling under present management for who knows how long. Nicole Arnold is a wonderful Rosemary, the secretary who clings to Finch as he rockets up the chain of command, showing off sterling pipes while singing the most wickedly calculated love songs composed for the Broadway stage. For her part, Maisie Rose plays her confidante Smitty as a sentient arched eyebrow. And for cocktail-dryness, have you seen Liz Norton’s Miss Jones, the bigwig’s secretary? Nancy Hays, though, nearly threatens to walk off with the show wrapped around a come-hither finger with her turn as Biggley’s bimbo mistress Hedy LaRue, someone so dim, she’s incapable of lying. I.e. the corporation’s greatest liability.
A snazzy, snappy, retro-until-it-feels-rather-au courant evening, it’s a silly inverse of what was once called a “tired businessman’s show,” where a guy could leave the office feeling wiped out, but pick up a last-minute ticket to a relaxing, mindless evening of gags and girls. How to Succeed…, however, doesn’t encourage anyone to forget their workplace troubles. If anything, it’s a reminder that all things colossal and monopolistic have their weaknesses, as true today as it was 60 years ago. Be like Finch: keep an eye and ear open, and you’ll find the opening.
Music Theater Works presents “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” through June 16 at the Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street, Evanston. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Brett Beiner.