'How to Succeed' has a charming period look — but making fun of corporations never gets old
Foothill Music Theatre's summer musical is an anticipated event by musical lovers, as director Jay Manley always manages to assemble a talented team. This year's "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" is no exception, sporting a terrific cast and technical elements to match.
After taking Broadway by storm in 1961 with Robert Morse in the lead, this musical languished in the archives for decades, deemed too politically incorrect to salvage for a modern audience, because of its presumably dated material regarding corporate ethics and office shenanigans. But a couple of revivals (1995 with Matthew Broderick and 2011 with Daniel Radcliffe) have rediscovered the fun and the heart of the show. And having a good laugh at a corporate spoof remains therapeutic.
Based on a satirical book of 1955 about how to climb the corporate ladder, the musical takes our hero, J. Pierrepont Finch (Michael Rhone), on a journey through the World Wide Wicket company as he follows the book's advice. Starting in the mailroom, he miraculously maneuvers promotions without training or tenure, acquires a girlfriend along the way — Rosemary (Corrie Lenn Borris) — and fends off the boss's scheming nephew, Bud Frump (David Mister). The boss, J. B. Biggley (Walter M. Mayes), has entanglements of his own — namely his mistress, Miss Hedy LaRue (Sarah Griner) — and hopes Finch will solve his problems.
When Finch launches his "big idea" and it gets bungled on national television, all hell breaks loose. But hey, it's a musical comedy, so you know it will work out. The fun is seeing how Finch manages to escape a disaster — and how yet another corporation cover-up can be a happy ending.
The standard numbers include "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm," sung by Rosemary after falling in love at first sight; "Rosemary," when the penny finally drops for Finch; and "I Believe in You," when Finch gives himself a pep talk in the executive washroom. "The Brotherhood of Man," a knockout number by the whole company, is a Broadway showstopper complete with dancing on tables. The controversial number "A Secretary is not a Toy" is given a '60s sitcom gloss of tongue-in-cheek innocence, with lots of fanny-ogling.
Rhone is spot-on perfect for Finch, with his boyish good looks, dynamite voice and impish grin. You would swear he's channeling Morse, although he's even cuter and livelier. He's well-matched by Borris as Rosemary, who has a beautiful voice and just the right mix of girlish eagerness and womanly bravado. Mister gleefully inhabits the villainous Frump, charming us with first-rate song and dance and whining.
Katie O'Bryon plays office maven Smitty to a tee, smirking and mugging to great effect; she brightens "Cinderella, Darling" and "Been a Long Day" with her strong vocals and comic skills. Other standouts include Mayes as Biggley, whose ability to play against his imposing physical presence makes certain moments even funnier; and Griner, wonderfully shameless as the hot tomato LaRue, whose lovely singing voice is an unexpected treat. The whole ensemble of junior clerks, executives and secretaries keeps it lively and engaging.
Joe Ragey's colorful fantasia on office decor and Janis Bergmann's neon jewel-tone costume palette superbly deliver the early 1960s through a comedic time warp. Music director Catherine Snider ably guides her small, capable orchestra through a demanding score.
One caveat: The show is uncut, running close to three hours including intermission. Plan accordingly, and then sit back and enjoy this superb summer romp.
"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," presented by Foothill Music Theatre at Smithwick Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills. Runs through Aug. 12, with 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays. Tickets are $10-$28. Go to foothillmusicals.com or call 650-949-7360.