Marriott’s business-like revival should have tried harder to find some relevance in the 1961 musical.
For a textbook example of how not to make a wildly dated cultural satire work for audiences of a half-century on, crack the spine of Marriott Theatre’s new revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The 1961 musical satire follows ambitious cipher J. Pierrepont Finch as he shoots up the corporate ladder on the no-nonsense advice of a self-help book. (The titular tome’s voiceover narration is provided here by actor Emily Loesser, daughter of the show’s late composer Frank; her husband, Don Stephenson, is the director.)
Stephenson’s staging, with a herky-jerky pacing that seems to race through the book scenes while turning musical numbers into dirges, unfortunately underlines everything the show doesn’t have to say to us today. The Marriott’s in-the-round milieu limits the ability to play up ’60s aesthetics, and the gender politics are, naturally, cringeworthy: The male execs exaggeratedly drool over their secretaries who, in return, proclaim they’re only there to nab husbands. Finch’s love interest, Rosemary (Jessica Naimy), wonders out loud in the small-talk song “Been a Long Day,” “What female kind of trap could I spring?”
Yet the production handles the ’60s corporate satire just as tentatively, unsure what to do with jokes about blind company loyalty and a depiction of big business as equally anonymous and innocuous. The show’s view of business is so alien to modern audiences that the entire rhythm is thrown off; even the great Felicia P. Fields feels a bit flustered when asked to fuel the big climactic number “Brotherhood of Man.”
And speaking of alien, that’s exactly how Ari Butler’s Finch comes across, his eagerness like a sign of an artificial intelligence studying the ’60s. Finch may be an amoral opportunist, but we need to be able to root for him; just as he trailed the tempo of some songs on opening night, Butler, seems to be chasing after a more winning characterization. Following on the middling entertainment ROI of the 2011 Broadway revival, perhaps it’s time for the theater to take its Business elsewhere.
Marriott Theatre. Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert. Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Directed by Don Stephenson. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins; one intermission.