Success and Failure from “HOW TO SUCCEED”

Nick Jonas PHOTO by Chris Callis

In many ways the show begins in the elegantly decorated entryway of New York’s Al Hirschfeld Theatre. It seems a fitting tribute to the renowned artist and theatre caricaturist for whom the theater is named, that three magnificent ceiling frescoes greet arriving patrons wise enough to look heavenward upon entering the lower lobby. Then come the stunning displays of the late Mr. Hirschfeld’s many delightful theatre-themed caricatures that so often graced the pages of the New York Times and other publications, but now decorate the walls of the upper lobby. Once inside the theater itself, the audience is embraced by the gold leaf and art deco grandeur adorning both ceiling and walls. Then it is on to the merry overture of Frank Loesser’s classic musical spoof of corporate ladder climbing, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. With the smooth musical direction of David Chase, the audience began to settle down from the buzz of anticipation probably associated with what would be the first matinee performance from  pop music icon, Nick Jonas (The Jonas Brothers), a new member of this cast that includes Emmy Award-winning actor Beau Bridges. Jonas assumed the lead role of J. Pierrepont Finch, a young window cleaner conniving to rise to the top of the corporate world with the aid of a little book titled, (You guessed it!) “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

With a Manhattan skyline backdrop, a beaming Jonas has the ultimate grand entrance as window-washing Finch descends from the heavens on his scaffold for the lively title tune that opens the show amid the hustle and bustle of busy employees at the corporate headquarters of the World Wide Wicket Company. In that opening number his solid singing voice was a pleasant accompaniment to his boyish good looks and radiating charm. Those assets will no doubt assure future audiences a fair share of teenage girls and adult “cougars.” Meanwhile, popular newscaster, Anderson Cooper, adds a comical touch. While Cooper does not appear on stage, it is his recorded voice that supplies the amusing voice-over narration of text each time Finch is reading himself a passage from his little how-to book. Another bit of comedy is supplied each time Finch momentarily freezes gleefully in a bright spotlight whenever he gains a sudden insight into how to gain advancement in the company. Jonas carries off those impish bits of comedy flawlessly.

Michael Urie as Bud Frump PHOTO: Chris Callis

Serving up assorted roadblocks to Finch’s success is one Bud Frump (Michael Urie of TV’s “Ugly Betty,” also new to this cast). Frump is the lazy nephew of company president, J.B. Biggley, (Beau Bridges), and feels his family connections should be reason enough for his advancement in the company ahead of Finch. Mr. Urie has been given perhaps too much latitude for heavy-handed comedy by director/choreographer, Rob Ashford. Urie supplies plenty of zany comic moments, but seems to work too hard at it, as though the audience wouldn’t be bright enough to get the jokes, and might prefer a cartoon character instead.

Rose Hemingway as Rosemary PHOTO: Chris Callis

A softer touch comes from Rose Hemingway in the role of Finch’s ultimate love interest, Rosemary. Her sweet, lilting delivery of “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” reveals her crush on the ambitious Finch, as well as her hope for suburban married life.

Director, Ashford, in an apparent attempt to capture the frantic energy in a busy company, seems to have evolved an equally frantic choreography. The show’s dance sequences often seem disorganized and unfocused as though everyone is doing his own thing. That approach was at least justifiable in the “Coffee Break” scene featuring the jangled nerves of office workers discovering the coffee machine is empty. The uncomplicated scenic designs of Derek McLane sometimes enhance the dancing with egg crate cubicles and sliding panels, all accented by the ever-changing lighting pastels from designer, Howell Binkley. The colorful ladies costumes were eye-catching as well, especially when ten of the secretaries show up at an office party in the same dress design (and Carmen Miranda headdress), while singing the humorous, “Paris Original.” (Costume Designer, Catherine Zuber.)

Another bright spot in the production comes from actor/comedian, Rob Bartlett, known to many for his association with the IMUS in the Morning radio program. Here he cheerfully plays mailroom supervisor, Mr. Twimble, and knocks one out of the park as he joins Mr. Jonas in a polished duet of the “Company Way,” while they are surrounded by more wandering choreography from the mailroom clerks. The comic characterization of Ellen Harvey as Biggley’s tough-as-nails secretary, Miss Jones, added to the fun and reminded one of comedienne, Eve Arden.

Tammy Blanchard as Hedy LaRue PHOTO: Chris Callis

And speaking of secretaries, there are plenty. We have Rosemary’s ditzy friend, Smitty (Mary Faber), and married Mr. Biggley’s girlfriend, the sassy floozy, Hedy LaRue (Tammy Blanchard), who Biggley would like to place on the company payroll. Aimless choreography continues to rule the day as the brash personnel supervisor, Mr. Bratt (Michael Park), cautions his staff while leading the ensemble in the rousing, “A Secretary is Not a Toy.” The dancing is no less disorganized when our adorable Finch tries to convince Biggley that they are graduates of the same college, “Grand Old Ivy,” and this rah-rah fantasy segment brings on the lumbering college football team to stomp around the singing duo.

Act Two opened with the toe-tapping secretaries offering lively relief in a “Cinderella Darling” that featured both pleasing choreography and more colorful costumes for the gals. But the dated and plodding plot of this 1961 show slows the progress.

Beau Bridges as J.B. Biggley PHOTO: Chris Callis

Mr. Bridges gives a fine performance as the philandering executive, but does not vocally advance the cause when he delivers a lackluster, “Love From a Heart of Gold” that suggests he might want to stick with straight plays in the future. But the staging of the men’s washroom scene was very well done with all the guys shaving at individual sinks that rotated smoothly within the scene as Finch and the gents gazed into mirrors and sang the show’s hit song, “I Believe in You.”

Nick Jonas as J. Pierrepont Finch PHOTO: Chris Callis

There was still some pirate quiz show nonsense to endure, as Finch becomes an executive with fresh ideas in the company’s Advertising Department. But eventually Mr. Jonas leads the cast in the familiar hit, “Brotherhood of Man.” The audience looked happy, so hopefully the cause of brotherhood had been advanced.

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING has music and lyrics by Academy Award and Tony Award winner Frank Loesser, and a book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, based on the book by Shepherd Mead.. Tickets range from $52 – $132, and are available at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre box office and at (212-239-6200). The playing schedule is as follows: Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Fridays, and Saturday at 8pm, with matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm.

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at
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