It’s good to hear punchlines in a musical comedy delivered as they were originally written for this show’s first outing on Broadway in 1961, before it became fashionable to swear, swear and swear some more.
Too many modern shows just lay on the profanity to make a point that the libretto becomes bland and uninspiring. In How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, there’s a wide enough vocabulary deployed, such that when JB Biggley (Andrew C Wadsworth), president of the World Wide Wicket Company, is taking one of his direct reports to task, he does so with some style.
The choreography is extremely varied. It is at its best in ‘Paris Original’, in which several female colleagues for a large firm have been sold the exact same outfit by a less than truthful retailer who appears to have assured them, separately, that their purchase was one of a kind. Elsewhere, the dance sequences didn’t fit the stage properly, and I couldn’t work out what a very random dance break late in the second half was trying to ‘say’. Was it supposed to be an expression of frustration, like ‘Angry Dance’ in Billy Elliot the Musical? A depiction of panic? Chaos?
Some of the acting is so melodramatic I got the rather unpleasant feeling that the production itself was being laughed at. A repetitive running gag about either a spotlight or one of the performers being in the wrong place outlasted its welcome. I wonder if the creative team have considered how boring it is to watch a number of characters on stage glued to a television set whose screen is turned away from the audience. It’s not the only aspect that could have been cut in a show with a running time just shy of three hours: the whole thing is twenty minutes too long.
The set changes become increasingly awkward as the evening goes on: clunks and screeches could be heard as set and props come on and off. Doors to an elevator (this being an American show, I couldn’t possibly call it a ‘lift’) don’t work as they should. The cast does well to soldier on regardless. Such weaknesses in the production are only magnified by a flawless nine-piece band, led by Ben Ferguson; they are positioned, as the orchestra is in Half A Sixpence, above the stage. The sound levels are excellent, and – credit where credit is due – it is rare to hear every line as clearly as it can be heard here.
The airs and graces of corporate working life are demonstrated well, particularly in an early number, ‘The Company Way’. The narrative does provide a surprisingly plausible explanation as to how certain people rise to the top of the corporate ladder without necessarily being the hardest working or even the most popular person in the firm. There are still (certain) people today who would benefit from hearing both the explicit and implied messages given in the self-explanatory musical number ‘A Secretary Is Not A Toy’. Make what you will, however, of such blatant misogyny on a London stage in 2017.
The story plods along at the pace that storylines did back then, and greater opportunity could have been made in the song and dance numbers to go ‘full out’, to borrow a term used by famed director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell. Instead, the company (pun acknowledged but unintended) come across as though they are merely going through the motions. At what should have been what Broadway calls an eleven o’clock number, ‘Brotherhood of Man’, I could almost hear Zach in A Chorus Line barking: “Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch! Again!” as though this were a rehearsal.
J Pierrepont Finch, the central character, is portrayed with panache by Marc Pickering – British audiences love rooting for the underdog. Of the supporting roles, secretaries Rosemary Pilkington (Hannah Grover) and Miss Jones (Maisey Bawden) stand out. The true beauty and power of their singing voices are only made fully apparent so far into the second act that I couldn’t help feeling that their talents are underutilised. This show did, to be fair, have some members of the audience humming the more memorable tunes as we filed out of the theatre. In the end, though, this particular production came across as a lesson in how to put on a musical without really trying and only succeeding up to a point.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Do you wish that your life was more successful? Do you yearn to reach the pinnacle of business and change the world for the better? Do you just love getting ahead?
Well, we have good news for you! This show is designed to tell you everything you need to know in the science of getting ahead. Follow J. Pierrepont Finch, played by Marc Pickering (Les Misérables, Sleepy Hollow, Calendar Girls) as he rises from lowly window washer to high-powered executive, in this anarchic tuneful romp. Jam-packed with sly, swift, sharp humour, and with its tongue firmly placed in its cheek. If you have education, intelligence and ability, so much the better. But remember that thousands have reached the top without any of these qualities – even to the highest job in America.
With an addictive score by Frank Loesser, composer of Guys and Dolls, join us for a sexy, scintillating and outrageous evening where business and pleasure collide in this multi-award-winning musical comedy.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning show includes famous numbers such as I Believe In You, Brotherhood of Man and Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm.
Directed by Benji Sperring, behind recent London hits Toxic Avenger and Shock Treatment.
Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Based upon the book by Shepherd Mead
Presented by Nicholas Thompson Productions and Tarquin Productions in association with the King’s Head Theatre
Originally presented by Cy Feuer and Ernst H. Martin
In association with Frank Productions
Performed by arrangement with
Music Theatre International (Europe) Limited
8-22 April 2017