By Karen Isaacs
How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying is one of those classic musicals that requires just the right cast. Luckily for the Connecticut Repertory Theater on the UConn campus in Storrs, they have an almost perfect leading man: Riley Costello.
In case you don’t remember, this 1961 musical has music and lyrics by the incomparable Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1962.
The plot is about how a young man, J. Pierpont Finch, using a book of the same title as the musical, his wits and charm plus a certain ruthlessness rises from a window washer to the Chairman of the Board of the World Wide Widget Corporation with remarkable speed.
The show satirizes all aspects of the corporate world and its politics and back-stabbing. Though a few aspects of the show are dated and reflect the reality of the 1960s, particularly regarding the role of women, today’s audiences will find that nothing much has truly changed.
You need a special performer to play Finch. It helps if he looks barely out of his teens and traditionally the actor has been shorter. He must embody enthusiasm and charm; his machinations to succeed must come across as endearing and clever, not manipulative. The original role on Broadway (and in the rather good film of the musical) was Robert Morse. Later Broadway revivals featured Matthew Broderick and Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter).
Riley Costello fits the mold perfectly. Last summer his portrayal of Peter Pan at UConn won him critical and audience acclaim. Here he balances the ruthlessness and the charm with sometimes boyish hesitancy. In addition, he dances and sings terrifically.
The other major roles in the show include the President of the company, J. B. Biggley, his wife’s nephew Bud Frump, and the head of the mailroom where Finch starts out, Twimble. The women’s roles are more stereotypical: Biggley’s no-nonsense secretary, Miss Jones; the love interest, Rosemary; and Biggley’s “playmate” Hedy LaRue, plus Rosemary’s friend Smitty.
In addition to the satiric plot, the show features a great score; the two most familiar are “I Believe in You,” and “Brotherhood of Man” but there is also “Coffee Break,” “The Company Way,” “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” and, my favorite, “Grand Old Ivy” that ridicules all college fight songs and alumni.
Costello handles both the scenes of his rise with the right degree of ruthlessness and his scenes with Rosemary with the perfect lack of confidence. He makes the most of his scenes with Mr. Biggley, played delightfully by Fred Gandy.
Grandy, who years ago played Finch in a tour of the show, minimizes some of the
pompousness of Biggley, the company’s president. But he does a fine job in the scenes with his girlfriend, Hedy.
Robert Fritz could be more humorously evil as Frump, the incompetent and whinny nephew-in-law of Biggley.
Sarah Schenkkan has a lovely voice as Rosemary, who is almost as driven as Finch but her drive is to marry an executive and once she has decided on Finch she is just as determined. The role is a difficult one; Rosemary is supposed to be sweet and driven yet she has none of the humor that Finch has. Schenkkan acquits herself well. Adria Swan is fine as Rosemary’s friend Smitty.
Ariana Shore plays Hedy LaRue, the stereotypical “bimbo.” She does the burlesque style walk well and does project a mixture of vulnerability and determination. Over the years, this role has focused more on the burlesque aspects of the character which I’m not sure is wise though it does garner laughs.
Finally we have Tina Fabrique as Miss Jones, the down-to-earth, older secretary to Mr. Biggley. We suspect that she is really the one who should run the company. Fabrique has a terrific voice, yet for whatever reason (sound design?) she is hard to hear in her big number, “The Brotherhood of Man.” I was looking forward to hearing her nail the number but it was hard to find her voice among the others.
Vincent J. Cardinal has directed the show briskly but he is let down by some of his production teams. I’ve already mentioned the sound balance on “The Brotherhood of Man” but also the spotlights that need to highlight Finch at times, aren’t as perfectly placed as they should be. Cassie Abate did a very nice job choreographing the show.
This is a good – though not great – production of this terrific show. You’ll have a good time.
How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying is at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theater on the UConn campus in Storrs through June 12. For tickets call 860-486-2113 or crt.uconn.edu.