Opening a major revival on Broadway with two leads making their musical debuts sounds like a bit of a shaky proposition but when the names above the title are beloved Emmy laden television star John Larroquette and some British kid called Daniel Radcliffe, it’s safe to assume that the risks are more artistic than financial.
Nonetheless, the new production of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying is determined to deliver a respectable bang for the pre-assured buck, as demonstrated by the choice of hotter than hot director-choreographer Rob Ashford. He delivers a show which takes a thin plot – the climb to success of ingenuous charmer J. Pierrepont Finch from window-washer to executive wunderkind – and presents it in the slickest, paciest fashion imaginable.
The play retains its original 1960s setting and it’s designed as a gorgeous homage to the decade’s most stylish, modernist impulses with a series of set pieces which glide smoothly on, garnished with beautiful people in sharp suits and ruthlessly cut dresses. The songs are well-tooled and springily arranged, if never hugely memorable (and several of them recall Frank Loesser’s own earlier work in Guys and Dolls perhaps too closely). The energetic choreography is a masterclass in ensemble dance, full of witty and graceful moments with a chorus drilled to perfection. Of a uniformly strong supporting cast, the stand-outs are Christopher J. Hanke as Finch’s haplessly scheming rival and Rob Bartlett who takes two separate small parts and makes a huge impression in them both.
The most heartening aspect of the production, though, is that the avalanche of established Broadway talent ends up complementing rather than carrying the central performances. John Larroquette, as the easily swayed company president, fits a mostly comic part beautifully and milks it for all it’s worth. He makes an amusing visual counterpoint to the diminutive Radcliffe who’s a good head shorter than pretty much everyone else on stage.
It’s not just his lack of height which makes Radcliffe a less-than-obvious star attraction; his voice, both speaking and singing, is fairly weak and his dancing looks more carefully memorised than to the manner born. Somehow, though, he makes it all work. If it’s a quirk of circumstance that he’s the star of the show, he’s obviously determined to justify it. He’s a charismatic and likeable presence, with a nice comic touch, and if his musical chops aren’t abundant, they’re by no means embarrassing. Buoyed by the palpable goodwill of the audience, he acquits himself admirably.
The immaculate production unfortunately can only go so far to hide some problems with the show, most of which stem from its roots in the 60s. Mad Men may have made it cool to be sexist again but all of the female characters here are a very sorry lot; the heroine’s ‘I Want’ number is basically an unironic version of ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ in which she dreams of cooking supper every night for our pint-sized hero, and her entire story is defined by her obsession with getting married. The show’s sexism is deep in the bone: there’s an entire number called ‘A Secretary is Not a Toy.’
The production decides to play all of this completely straight, which is probably the best bet in the circumstances since it’s not a piece which can really support updating or re-interpretation (the only nod to the last thirty years is brief, funny Tom Cruise sight gag). If you can stomach the archaic values, it’s a bright, breezy, gossamer thin piece of well mounted entertainment which garnered an enthusiastic and well-earned standing ovation. It just doesn’t really bear too much thinking about, but perhaps that doesn’t always matter.