Just when I tell myself that I’ve probably seen at least one example of most of the popular musicals another one seems to hove into view to prove me wrong. Last month I finally got to see Pal Joey which had long been on my “to see” hit list and just weeks before that Betty Blue Eyes found a place on my schedule. Yesterday it was the turn of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying which is now at the Southwark Playhouse (Borough) for five weeks. I can’t think of any other musical which was developed out of a parody of populist self help manuals but that’s the provenance here in Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock & Willie Gilbert’s gleeful satire of American office life a la the Mad Men era. More importantly, it is the repository for a score and lyrics by Frank (Guys & Dolls) Loesser. With this earlier work playing to huge acclaim just down the road it’s an ideal time to catch up with this l(o)esser known work (sorry, couldn’t resist!) especially if it’s not one you have seen before.
Young and seemingly – though only seemingly – naïve wannabe businessman J. Pierrepont Finch (Ponty to his friends) meteorically rises through the ranks of the World Wide Wicket Company by following the diktats of the titular book (voiced here by Michelle Visage). With almost consummate ease he moves from mail clerk to head of the company encountering a range of stereotypes and situations; there is even an office romance in which acquires a partner, Rosemary, who he treats abominably but who constantly keeps bouncing back for more. Thus, the greasy ladder to success proves not to be that greasy as Finch gets all his ducks in a row aided by a crowd of fellow workers who find him charming rather than ambitious even as he is using them as stepping stones to the top. While this begs the question as to whether all these people – especially Rosemary – could be quite so collectively dim, this is, after all, a musical comedy so best not to question the motivation and characters too keenly. Despite director Georgie Rankcom’s insistence that it has “something to say in our time”, you can safely ignore that aspect and just sit back and have an enjoyable evening out.
For that is very much what it is – or was – designed to be. A day glo satirically raucous comedy from an earlier era which while it treads on the toes of office politics, power, gender roles, the glass ceiling and so forth, does so without being overtly condemnatory of any of it and which could even be accused of reinforcing such hierarchical structures. The production makes an attempt to undercut all this by gender flipping a number of characters including the two main protagonists but has only limited success in doing so. In the end even though big boss J.B. Biggley’s pronouncements come from a female performer, the character is still resolutely masculine and it is the male characters who win out while the female ones remain as lowly secretaries, office cleaners, stay at home wives or straightforward objects of lust – all of which they seem to be more than content with. Ultimately the whole ethos simply cannot be reconciled with modern sensibilities so best just to enjoy the spectacle.
This starts with the wittily written songs, most of which are top notch. While they may not be as familiar as those from the aforementioned Gs & Ds (with the notable exception of the classily delivered “I Believe In You”) they are guaranteed to raise a smile and will still be spinning round your head next day. Natalie Pound’s quintet of musicians, perched on a gantry above the stage, play with verve and precision and, unlike with other musicals seen at the same venue, keep themselves in check enough so that the lyrics can be heard clearly. Alexzandra Sarmiento’s choreography also ramps up the enjoyment factor even if space is somewhat limited and there has to be endless clearing of stage furniture for the numbers to work. Sophia Pardon’s cartoonish use of colour in the set and costumes creates an instant 60s vibe which also works well and is another pleasing bonus.
The biggest success though is in the casting department. Gabrielle Friedman as Finch has a crystal clear singing voice and is utterly charming in the lead role and Tracie Bennett as the big (well, not so big) boss exhibits a total command of the comedic aspects while demonstrating that her power to belt out a tune has far from deserted her. What a set of pipes this performer has! I particularly relished Elliot Gooch’s turn as the sneaky, nerdy, nephew of the boss “villain” of the piece, Bud Frump. Deliciously arch delivery for his character, he’s also one to watch when the dancing takes place. By common consent in the theatre foyer, the real star of the show is Allie Daniel’s portrayal of the lovelorn and loveworn Rosemary. Her delivery (both verbal and musical) is spot on being delightfully gauche and spikily knowing – yes those two can definitely co-exist. The rest of the company do what they do with style and pizzazz; there really isn’t a weak link among this diverse troupe.
Press night had a heavily delayed start and an overlong interval adding half an hour to what was (be warned) a long evening in the first place. But the audience left in cheery mood as did I. Coming from the same team and sharing the same sort of aesthetic as last year’s Sondheim outing, Anyone Can Whistle, I found this musical to be the rather more successful of the two as long as you ignore the twists and enjoy it as the period piece which it is. If Big Con Productions/The Grey Area and Southwark Playhouseare going to specialise in early 1960s musicals perhaps they would be kind enough to have a go at a couple more I’ve yet to tick off my list – Lionel Bart’s Blitz or even his notorious Twang!!
Production photos by Pamela Raith
How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying is at the Southwark playhouse (Borough) – click here
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