The disembodied voice inviting
us to "Please take your seats for How to Succeed in Business Without Even Trying,
had the mood right, if not the exact wording. That *really* is the vital part of the
The charm of this 40-year old musical lies as much in its immunity to
the intervening workplace and equal-opportunity laws as it does in the relentless rise and
rise of its cunning corporate hero, J. Pierrepont Finch, who, aided only by a thin manual
and a thick skin, advances from window cleaner to chairman of the World Wide Wicket Company
in the space of a single (albeit long) evening.
This splendidly vivacious staging, the first of this year's series of
musicals from the Production Company, is directed with a fine sense of cynicism and good
timing by Kris Stewart, who makes the most of the sometimes anarchic and frequently crazed
sets of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that existed long before SWOT
analyses took over businesses big and small.
There must have been challenges for Stewart -- not the least of which is
the narrow strip of stage flanked by two flights of steps that constitutes Leon Salom's
set; the orchestra is upstage -- but he uses the space to its best advantage, avoiding the
usual pitfalls of semi-staged performances.
The large cast is dominated by two first-rate performers. Derek
Metzger's impish, inquisitive Finch, who is something of a ruthless corporate climber, has
a good heart somewhere on his Brooks Brothers worsted sleeve, and Metzger balances these
two sides of his nature with care and craft; John Wood, as JP Biggley, gives a wonderfully
full interpretation, with a rollicking gait and basso profondo voice that is particularly
effective in his songs.
In addition, Tony Harvey is very funny as the spineless (boneless,
really: he is so *floppy*), cringing Bud Frump; and MaryAnne McCormack is a charming
Rosemary Pilkington. Melissa Madden Gray makes a worthy dumb-blonde Hedy La Rue;
and the rest of the employees of WWW disport themselves with angular precision (Kelly
Aykers' choreography is smartly spot-on) in their various guises. Guy Noble conducts
with real elan, and the State Orchestra responds with gusto.
The real problem, though, with this enterprise is the raw
material. Although the book of How To Succeed is still sharp in its
observations about the human condition and office life, the period remains jellified in
rose-coloured aspic: the age of all-male executives staring at or touching up all-female
secretaries, let alone the musical's only showstopper, The Brotherhood of Man,
locates it as firmly in early 1960s New York, when wives stayed at home and their men
played around at work, as does Billy Wilder's even more sardonic send-up in his film
Yet, for all this, How to Succeed succeeds by dint of its strong
performances, satirical edge and the inevitable progression of its hero.
All these qualities shine forth in this production, even if the piece
itself is a trifle too long. Like most meetings, really.