This year London is treated to not only one Frank Loesser musical but two, including the obvious candidate, Guys and Dolls at the Bridge Theatre, to the equally dynamic but perhaps less produced How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The musical comedy with the book by Abe Burrows opened last night at the Southwark Playhouse in a new production directed by Georgie Rankcom.
The musical based on the novel by Shepherd Mead traces young J. Pierrepont Finch’s comet like rise in the business world from mere window washer to the chairman of the board of the World Wide Wicket Company. Finch is filled with ambition from the get-go and with this ‘How to’ book in hand it seems he truly can take on the world. But as he climbs the company ladder Finch stumbles upon love, nepotism, office politics and its seedy affairs, but fails to recognise the effects of the game he plays on people around him. Still, this is a musical comedy from the 1960s so it does find a neat bow to wrap the story into a happy ending, suggesting that after all, we are all part of one big happy family looking out for one another in the big ‘Brotherhood of Man’.
In this production, it is evident why Loesser and Burrows’ musical has been decorated with many accolades, including the cavorted Pulitzer Prize, as it satirises the company and office culture in great style. The musical is very much a period piece but the book is filled with jokes and one-liners that punctuate Loesser’s tuneful score and witty lyrics, and together still today sharply parodies the working life. Rankcom’s direction takes no shortcuts in delivering great performances and fully succeeds in its comic timing. The gender reversal casting raises questions about satire on top of satire, and feels pointless, as the cast captures each character so well, making it feel like the reversal is just done to make the production seemingly more interesting or relevant today. What makes this production relevant is the pure bliss of the craftsmanship in the book and music, which leaves many contemporary musicals in its shadows.
Whilst this How to Succeed is not cherished with big and glamorous sets or high production values, the casting clearly leaves these shortcomings to the background. Each company member leaves a mark on you and utilises that great book to create memorable and laughable parodies of these office types from the sweetheart secretary, Rosemary (Allie Daniel), to the seductive bombshell Hedy Larou (Annie Aitken) and to the toe-tapping company man Mr Twimble (Danny Lane). Daniel’s Rosemary is a well-measured comic turn that is equally rivalled by the boss’ nephew, Bud Frump, Elliot Gooch playing deliciously the geek and jealousy of Frump.
The top billing is given to musical theatre legend Tracie Bennett, as she commands the stage as the big boss J.B. Biggley. You feel at ease in her presence and she truly finds the satire in playing the archetypal boss whose main interest is in the ladies' department rather than the business itself. Amongst all these colourful characters is J. Pierrepont Finch, played by Gabrielle Friedman, who plays the chameleon canvas that allows others around her to be larger than life but occasionally risking of fading too much into the background. However, Friedman’s performance takes flight in her heartfelt rendition of ‘I Believe in You’ and the show-stopping ‘Brotherhood of Man’, showcasing her great vocals too.
This revival is a testament to the greatness of its authors, giving this company a great vehicle for comedy, song and dance to show off their talents. Whilst the set design feels way below Southwark Playhouse standards, it is the acting that makes this How to Succeed worthwhile. You will be guaranteed to laugh out loud and leave the theatre with a smile on your face. This is compulsory viewing for any young musical theatre buff.
It runs until 17 June.
Review: Jari Laakso Photo: Pamela Raith