by Clark Groome
Ever since I first saw “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” at Philadelphia’s Shubert Theatre (now the Merriam) on its way to Broadway in 1961, I was hooked. So, apparently, was everyone else. The show got ecstatic reviews and went on to win seven Tonys, including the one for best musical, and the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was turned into a popular movie and received impressive Broadway revivals in 1995 and 2011.
The show, which is playing at the Walnut Street Theatre through July 13, follows the ambitious J. Pierrepont Finch (Jeremy Morse in the role originated by Robert Morse and later played on Broadway by the terrific Matthew Broderick and Daniel Radcliffe, a/k/a Harry Potter) through his climb from window washer to chairman of the board of the World Wide Wicket Company, Inc., encountering romance, envy, office politics and all manner of corporate shenanigans along the way.
Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert’s book is witty and smart. Composer and lyricist Frank Loesser – who already had composed “Guys and Dolls,” perhaps the greatest American musical, and “The Most Happy Fella” – was in top form.
It was puzzling, then, when the Walnut’s production didn’t seem to trust the material. While the cast was obviously talented and enthusiastic about their roles, director Casey Hushion and choreographer Michelle Lynch have mounted the show so frenetically that almost all of the show’s charms and satirical elements were lost in a production that apparently thinks the audience needs to be hit over the head with the show’s comedic moments.
The 1995 Broadway production, with Broderick as Finch, tried misguidedly to eliminate all of the 1950s references to the role of the woman in the office that weren’t politically correct. It flattened the story, and the show was a major disappointment. The 2011 revival went back to the original and played it straight. The result: a terrific production that restored the show’s wit and intelligence.
I kept wondering at the Walnut’s opening night if the whole affair was being played at a scene-chewing pace to let us know IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS that this was all in fun.
While the production numbers – “Coffee Break,” “Company Way” and “Paris Original” – were overanxious to please, some of the smaller moments were more restrained and successful.
What’s most distressing about this production is that several really good performances were lost in the kerfuffle. Morse’s Finch was fine and, surrounded by a better directorial vision, would have been better than that. Excellent turns came from Jeffrey Coon as personnel manager Bert Bratt, Mark Jacoby as CEO JB Biggley, Joilet F. Harris as JB’s secretary, Ed Romanoff as Mr. Twimble and Chairman Wally Womper and Amy Bodnar as JB’s beloved Hedy La Rue. Brian Shepard’s Bud Frump, JB’s nephew and Finch’s archenemy, has some fine moments but is inconsistent. Becky Gulsvig’s Rosemary Pilkington, Finch’s girlfriend, is a fine actress but has a nasal and somewhat screechy singing voice that diminishes her effectiveness significantly.
The physical production, with its many Robert Andrew Kovach-designed scene changes, is awkward and, like the rest of the affair, often overly energetic. Lisa Zinni’s costumes are fine except where it really counts in “Paris Original,” where the dress that is the focus of the scene is so ugly I can’t imagine anyone buying it. Paul Black designed the lighting.
Toward the end of the show, after a corporate disaster threatens everyone’s job, Finch reminds the assembled managers that they’re all part of “The Brotherhood of Man.” This scene, that also features Germantown’s Joilet Harris’ stunning vocal performance, finally got the tone and energy level right.
Too bad it took almost three hours to get there.
For tickets call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org.