As Daniel Radcliffe made his first entrance — being lifted high above the stage in a window washer’s harness — the teenagers (who filled at least half of the Al Hirschfeld Theater) at the last preview performance greeted their Harry Potter idol and now the star of this latest revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” with the kind of ecstatic reception that might suggest they are witnessing the second coming. And that was nothing compared to the sporadic roars of approval they showered on him during the show and particularly at the final curtain calls.
With that said and being fully aware of the fine reception accorded Radcliffe when he made his Broadway debut in Peter Shaffer’s play “Equus,” I am obliged to report my response. I suspect that his amiable personality, his modest ability as a singer, and his demonstrable agility during the dance numbers as well as his acting have more to do with just about everything but his future as a musical theater star. This is not to suggest Radcliffe does not deliver with a commendable amount of enthusiasm and expertise all that is required by this show.
When “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” opened on Broadway in 1961, no one realized that this dynamic, sardonic musical might be exemplifying the peak of the golden age of American musical theater. Frank Loesser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, multi-Tony-Award-winning musical has been happily re-invented for the second time. A successful revival was produced on Broadway in 1995 with Matthew Broderick as the one who succeeds. Even for those who have memories of the original production with Robert Morse, Rudy Vallee, and Charles Nelson Reilly still lingering, I have no qualms or hesitation in saying that this latest company, with direction and choreography by Rob Ashford, has no apologies to make.
Radcliffe brings an an endearing presence that puts the audience on the supportive side of the cynical, insincere and conniving imp who schemes his way from window washer to top executive. Radcliffe’s “I Believe in You” performance is certainly and purposefully predicated on the need for his character, J. Pierrepont Finch, to beguile us with his opportunism. He does.
Others in the company follow suit. As Finch’s New Rochelle-dreaming secretary/love-interest Rosemary, Rose Hemingway is making her Broadway debut. What more does one need to know than that she almost makes us believe that she will be “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm.” She has the pretty face, the professional confidence, and a radiant singing voice that add up to the kind of ingratiating talent that should keep her on the boards.
The once prerequisite 11 o’clock showstopper, in this case the robustly staged “Brotherhood of Man,” is detonated on target by Ellen Harvey as the tough but tender (when it comes to Finch) Miss Jones, whose steely soprano comes close to breaking the sound barrier. She plays the secretary to World Wide Wicket Corporation’s president J.B. Biggley, as played with a wonderfully restrained double-edged humor by John Larroquette. A highlight for Larroquette and Radcliffe is the comical body language they share for that wonderful parody of a college song “Grand Ole Ivy.”
There is a notable lack of caricatured performances that help us, at least in part, to consider the various office types as recognizable human beings. Best among these is Christopher J. Hanke as Bud Frump, Biggley’s conniving, duplicitous, inept, and jealous (of Finch) nephew who is next in line to take command of the mail room. Hanke is so terrifically engaging and delightfully devious that he made me think he could easily be quite effective playing Finch. Ashford, who previously directed Hanke in the musical “Cry Baby,” knew what he was doing by bringing this spark-plug into the mix. Hanke gives the always funny “Coffee Break,” the show’s first real jolt, a caffeinated high that he helps sustain throughout.
Ashford keeps the Frank Loesser (music and lyrics), Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock & Willie Gilbert (book) package moving along at the obligatory fast clip. Though office manners and mores are changed, we are obliged to withhold our shock or dismay at what was once the norm in the light of the sweet amorality that pervades — and the cheerful way it has been (yet again) resurrected to celebrate the show’s 50th anniversary. Some of us may still need to be reminded that “A Secretary Is Not a Toy, “ especially if she is just as apt to become your boss during the next restructuring.
Rob Bartlett is excellent in his two roles — the jolly head of the mail department and later as the big boss who finds himself in the clutches of Hedy LaRue (Tammy Blanchard), the va va voom secretary who is unmistakably a toy. Mary Faber is a charmer as Smitty, Rosemary’s confidant.
Set designer Derek McLane puts all the romantic shenanigans and corporate doings within a modernist see-through, sky-scraping structure of sliding panels and gliding platforms that is, at its best, functional and at its worst tiresome on the eyes, were it not for Howell Binkley’s lighting. Commendably era-specific are the women’s wardrobe (designed by Catherine Zuber) and their hairstyles. Men’s fashions haven’t changed much, but I especially liked the electric-blue bow tie that Radcliffe wears throughout on his way up the corporate ladder.
It wasn’t until after the show and I re-read the program that I realized that it is CNN newscaster Anderson Cooper’s voice that we hear as the narrator of Finch’s self-help book. From what I can recall, it was authoritative and convincing. Why else would Finch have followed his advice? **
“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 West 45th Street. $52 to $132. 212-239-6200.