a theatre, film & pop culture review
Almost exactly a year ago, I questioned the validity of casting Daniel Radcliffe, the rather inexperienced, endearing young British bloke in Frank Loesser’s 1961 musical comedy gem. I joked that it could be re-titled How to Get Cast in a Broadway Musical Without Really Trying since Radcliffe previously held only one theatre credit to his name (an underwhelming performance in Equus, an underwhelming play). When I read the playbill announcement of his musical casting, my entire body twitched violently, and I reflected in horror: a screaming Katie Holmes ruining classic Arthur Miller. Shrill Lauren Graham struggling to sing-speak-dance her way through “A Bushel and a Peck.” A painfully dull Jena Malone stumbling through Mourning Becomes Electra. I wanted to punch, hard, the dim-witted casting director who decided to put another ill-equipped film actor on stage.
Then I thought about it, really thought about it, and decided it might not be such a whacky idea after all. And you know what? Turns out I was right! Though I suppose I should give some credit to Tara Rubin Casting as well.
How to Succeed is musical comedy, Pulitzer Prize-winning gold. Folks, they don’t get any better than this: a crazy-witty corporate satire, brilliantly and buoyantly scored by the masterful pair, Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser, that brought the Runyon world of Guys and Dolls to life. So while Radcliffe’s never been in an out-and-out comedy, funny-guy J. Pierrepont Finch doesn’t earn laughs through hoodwinking buffoonery or silly slapstick; he’s a crafty conman who stealthily charms his way up the corporate ladder. The Harry Potter series demonstrated that young Radcliffe had cornered the market on sweet innocence, and his quiet effortlessness creates a Finch that is an adorably green, flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kid. No, he’s not the mischievous Ferris-Bueller-Finch portrayed by Mathew Broderick in the ’95 revival, nor is he the hammy Robert Morse of the original, and he could certainly use some more vocal training (a month into the run, he sounds tired). But the stage novice is working it, hard, and while for any other performer that obvious effort would spell disaster, you feel something akin to pride in watching the 21-year-old rise, radiantly, to the challenge set before him. A pint-sized ball of endless energy, he bounds across the stage from production number to production number, and he’s loving every second of it. And because of that, we love it — and him — too.
The rest of the cast is terrific as well: John Larroquette plays the big boss (literally and figuratively — the lumbering giant of man towers over the pocket-sized Radcliffe) as alternately blustery and nimble, transferring from a dopey corporate dictator to a giddy, closeted sweater-knitter. As his scatterbrained secretary Hedy La Rue, Tammy Blanchard is equal parts vapid and guileful, va-va-vooming her way through the secretarial pool in a clever stylistic nod to Mad Men‘s Joan (thanks to costumer Catherine Zuber for her bright and modern ’60s office attire). Sometimes winking, sometimes earnest, Rose Hemingway, in her Broadway debut as the fast-climbing Finch’s love-interest, struggles a bit with the dated material (is she really Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm?), but is generally lovely. She’s also an alumna of director Rob Ashford’s directorial debut, Parade, at LA’s Mark Taper Forum (she played the dead little girl).
If we’re keeping track of the Parade connections — and I am — Howell Binkley‘s lighting is as relentlessly colorful here as it was starkly grim in Parade‘s Broadway premiere. But it’s just as well, because the entire production is insistently cheerful from its parade of Easter-egg-hued dresses to Derek McLane‘s pastel-shaded hexagonal set that offers the air of a perpetually perky ’60s game show. Helming the entire vibrant affair is director-choreographer Rob Ashford in his second Broadway directing effort, after last year’s rather dismal Promises, Promises. The poor man’s How to Succeed, Promises was notable for only two reasons, one of them Ashford’s marvelous ’60s-styled dance sequences (the other, Katie Finneran’s scene-stealing comic genius).
In Promises, Ashford’s artistry was limited by the confines of a mediocre non-dancing musical, so while it may seem he’s cribbing his own choreography here, he actually ups the ante in H2$. More than capable of bolstering an actor’s strengths while maintaining the integrity of the artistic work and making it his own (see Parade, which also boasted a lead who had never sang before), Ashford interjects movement where before there was none — dancers burst out of nowhere during “Rosemary,” with exuberant leaps and lifts that perfectly capture the high of that first, life-altering kiss — keeping the energy high and the production moving with his super-stylish, comic choreography. The over-worked, under-caffeinated office drones become twitchy zombies in “Coffee Break,” the inner-workings of the mail room translate to choreographic conveyer-belt complexities with mind-boggling precision of agile boxing, stamping, and labeling (oh my); Radcliffe and Laroquette sportively embody cheerleading groundhogs whilst a slew of chorus boys tumble and tackle their way through the roughest balletic game of football in “Grand Old Ivy” (surely they have a fight call for this number every night); and that great eleven o’clock number, “Brotherhood of Man”… Well, let’s just say that are so many simultaneous, intricate stage pictures that unless you have an aerial view, you’re bound to miss something.
At times Ashford overcrowds the stage with busy bodies and big, Broadway movement, and the production can seem a smidge too sleek and polished. But these flaws fall away when you realize what’s before you: a blissfully bright Broadway musical with a full, fantastic orchestra; clever, beautifully executed choreography; and a dynamic, dedicated cast. No wizardry here: just some luck, a lot of pluck, and quite possibly the Happiest Boy on Broadway.