Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773. Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert. Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Directed by Rob Lindley. With Tyler Ravelson, Elizabeth Telford, Fred Zimmerman, John Keating, Sharriese Hamilton, Emily Ariel Rogers. Running time: 2hrs 45mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Equal parts send-up and celebration of early-’60s office culture, How to Succeed (based on a satiric self-help book that had become a bestseller in the ’50s) follows amorally efficient corporate climber J. Pierrepont Finch as he rockets from window washer to top executive with the advice of the titular tome.
Finch skates from one promotion to the next, currying favor with superiors and disposing of those in his way by way of well-researched misdirections that stop just short of outright deceit, exploiting weaknesses in business bureaucracy. That starts with finding the right kind of business: It must be just big enough, the book says (in a voiceover recorded for Porchlight’s revival by dulcet-toned newsman Bill Kurtis), that no one is sure of exactly what anyone else does.
That kind of corporate parody still holds up pretty well five decades after How to Succeed became one of the few musicals to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Less hardy are book writers Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert’s takes on women in the workplace, with the secretarial pool winkingly objectified in numbers like “A Secretary is Not a Toy” and dreaming of hooking an executive husband in “Cinderella, Darling” and “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” but at least our cultural obsession with Sterling Cooper and company has perhaps primed us for the culture shock—and costume designer Bill Morey has a ball with the women’s sassy ’60s fashions.
Rob Lindley’s kinetic, attractive staging goes a long way toward smoothing over the bumps in the show’s episodic structure; a number of brief blackout-style book scenes suggest the rapidly spreading influence of the Second City, which had its first revue open on Broadway in 1961, just weeks before How to Succeed. Frank Loesser’s score contains multiple pleasures, from the exemplary small-talk number “Been a Long Day” to the downright irresistible 11 o’clock anthem “Brotherhood of Man,” and the cast essays them all quite well. (The five-piece orchestra, though, can seem a bit thin here and there.)
Newcomer Elizabeth Telford is a treat as Rosemary, the secretary who falls head over heels for Finch and imagines keeping his dinner warm in New Rochelle, and Sharriese Hamilton makes an ideal Smitty, the saucy best friend who manipulates the two into their first date in “Been a Long Day.”
But while Tyler Ravelson’s Finch keeps us on his side through all his machinations, it’d be nice if we could see a bit more of what Rosemary does. To be fair, the part is written as a bit of a cipher. But Ravelson is keeping it too low-key and casual, underplaying the hungry ambition and charisma that Finch needs. And with some of Lindley’s supporting players pushing their wackiness a bit too hard, Ravelson runs the risk of being swallowed up—and crossing over from not really trying into not succeeding.