Sunday, March 27, 2011

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Review - How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (But With Daniel Radcliffe)

OK, let's get to the burning questions right up front: Can Daniel Radcliffe sing? Yes. His intonation is spot-on, although he did have trouble sustaining some of the longer notes.

Can Daniel Radcliffe dance? Most definitely, and quite well, I might add. Sure, he was a little bit out of breath at the end of "Brotherhood of Man," but that might have been more a function of Rob Ashford's strenuous choreography than of Radcliffe's lung capacity.

But, on a larger level, can Daniel Radcliffe actually carry a Broadway musical?


Of course, my questions refer to How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a rousing revival of which opened last night at the Al Hirshfeld Theater in New York. At first I thought it was too soon to bring back H2$, since the delightful 1995 revival (featuring Matthew Broderick, Victoria Clark, and Megan Mullally) is still so fresh in the brains of all of us theater queens of a certain age.

But, then, this revival isn't for us theater queens, now is it? It's rather for the multitudes of Harry Potter fans, many of whom hadn't even been born in 1995, but are looking for a chance to see their favorite wizard in person, and maybe in something a bit more accessible than a dated drama about a disturbed young man who blinds a bunch of horses. (See Equus.)

Radcliffe proves himself a showman of the first order, with a charming stage presence and a killer smile. Oh, and his American accent is flawless. But more than just a wonderful vehicle for a young man who more than earns his star billing, this production of How to Succeed is thoroughly enjoyable in its own right, delivering effervescent fun from start to finish.

Mr. Radcliffe's supporting cast is no less deserving of praise. TV favorite John Larroquette makes a welcome Broadway debut as J.B. Biggley, and he certainly lives up to his four Emmy Awards for "Night Court," exuding a smarmy charm and a natural comedic instinct. Christopher J. Hanke at first seemed a rather odd choice for Bud Frump: a bratty pretty boy rather than your typical...well...frumpy Frump. But he makes the part his own, and deftly so. Likewise, Tammy Blanchard as Hedy Larue took some getting used to, as she seemed to be going for something very different from the typical air-headed Hedy. But I think my hesitation may have come more from, interestingly enough, her wardrobe. Hedy's first outfit didn't quite showcase Blanchard's form to its bombshell best; subsequent outfits, however, provided more of the requisite "wow" factor, and I was able to appreciate Blanchard's very strong and individual performance.

On the production front, it's really gratifying to see director/choreographer Rob Ashford make such a strong comeback after the lackluster affair that was his Promises, Promises. It just goes to show that, with the alchemy of live theater, you just never know what forces and talents will combine to create a successful show. There it didn't work at all. Here it does. The strange thing is, on the surface, Ashford's work on both shows would seem rather similar. In How to Succeed, Ashford weaves in a lot more dancing than the show typically has - for instance during the office party at the end of act one. But here it adds to what is already a wonderfully crafted show, whereas in Promises, Promises, it was shoring up a piece that doesn't really work.

Interestingly, Ashford reverses most of the changes that the 1995 revival made for the sake of political correctness. For instance, the original lyric for "It's Been a Long Day" features the line "What female sort of trap could I spring?," which the 1995 revival changed to "What clever sort of trap could I spring?," possibly to make the show seem less misogynistic. The character of Jonesy, who sings the female solo in "Brotherhood of Man," was played in 1995 by the redoubtable Lillias White, perhaps to give the show a bit of racial diversity and the number a bit of soul. In the current production, Jonesy is back to her original pallor, and played with great animation and fire by Ellen Harvey.

Most notably, the number "Cinderella, Darling" has been restored. It was replaced in 1995 by a reprise of the title number, performed by the female chorus, but I was never really clear as to why the creators made that change. Both of the numbers portray the show's females as calculating and opportunistic. (Which was, of course, the point.) In any case, Ashford restores the original number, but I wasn't really a fan of the way he chose to stage it, as a tap number. I'm not quite sure why. I guess Ashford figured that it worked in "Forget About the Boy" from Thoroughly Modern Millie, but here it sort of falls flat. In Millie, the tap was all about anger, and it gave the number a sense of punctuation. But here, it doesn't really seem to serve any specific purpose, other than to provide some variation in the dance scheme of the show.

But, overall, Ashford is thankfully back in fine form with this production, particularly with the aforementioned "Brotherhood of Man," which was thrilling, and received the kind of roar from the crowd that one so rarely hears in the theatre these days. Likewise, "Grand Old Ivy" genuinely stopped the show, thanks to an ingenious bit of staging on Ashford's part. (I don't want to give the device away, but it's actually funny that nobody thought of it before.) "The Company Way" features lots of interesting mail-room-type business, perhaps a bit too much at times, as it tended to overshadow Frank Loesser's sharply satirical lyrics.

So, great show, great cast, great staging. A production that could have been just a vanity production with a slumming Broadway wannabe has turned out to be so much more.

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