Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Thursday, May 26, 2011

How to Succeed at Starring in a Broadway Musical

Like the character he plays in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Daniel Radcliffe has made his way up the acting ladder with a lot of charm, talent, and hard work. Detractors during his early Harry Potter years sniped that he needed acting lessons (he seemed okay to me). So he took some, as well as singing and dancing lessons, and they’ve more than paid off.

My parents saw the original “How to Succeed,” which debuted in 1961. That was in the days when a couple could go to dinner and a Broadway show without having to take out a second mortgage. I remember them saying how funny it was. I ponied up the $167 ($142 for the ticket, $18 RT for the bus – I was wearing my ‘grandma pants’ because my cat had thrown up on my last pair of clean jeans, so the bus driver was about to give the senior discount until I corrected him – and $7 for a Diet Coke, because my throat was parched). I wanted to know a couple of things: a) was the musical as funny as my parents seemed to think; b) would it be as funny 49 years later; c) could Dan Radcliffe pull it off?

The answer was yes to all three, and more. The whole cast, not just Dan, was wonderful. My particular favorite was Ellen Harvey as Miss Jones, the president’s secretary. Christopher Hanke pulled off the character of the villainous Bud Frump with style and great humor. No sulking in the corner for this nephew-in-law of the president.

Were it not for the costumes and hairstyles and some of the humor about secretaries (“A Secretary is Not a Toy”), you’d hardly know this was musical is set in 1961. I went to the Wednesday matinee because I just didn’t care to go to an evening performance alone. As a result, there were a lot of “Harry Potter” fans. They were a bit aghast at his appearance in the marquee over the theater. They feared their hero had become Pee Wee Herman.  They just didn't understand the dress code of c. 1961 - clerks wore bow ties, executives wore neckties.

He won them over in the very first number, though, “How to Succeed” with Anderson Cooper of CNN doing the narrative honors. Rest assured, Dan has a strong voice, which will no doubt get even stronger with more time and even more confidence. He met the challenge of playing J. Pierrepont Finch with plenty of confidence, enthusiasm, and charm, winning his way into the mailroom of World Wide Widget company.

John Larroquette plays the company president, Mr. Biggley, and just won the Drama Desk award for the role. He wisely allowed the young company to do most of the hard work dancing. Bonnie Scott is a sweetheart as Rosemary Plinkington, who has ambitions of her own regarding Finch and New Rochelle, N.Y. Another interesting cast member is Michael Park who plays Brett Bratt, the Human Resources director. He bears a fascinating resemblance to one of my company’s executives. Every time he came on stage, I just imagined our own Mr. Bratt singing and dancing away.

In fact, any one of them could be any one of us who works in an office. The times and technology may have changed, but office people have not. “Coffee Break” and “Company Way” point to the timelessness of office life. The line about the company magazine was particularly amusing, as the mailroom clerks danced their way over boxes of company magazines.

The only problematic moment in the whole musical comes not from relative newcomer Dan Radcliffe, but from the staging of Rosemary’s number, “A Paris Original.” Rosemary changes into her dress for the company party right on-stage. She’s strategically covered up in front, but the producers apparently didn’t take into account matinee shows filled with schoolchildren, clamoring to see their idol, Daniel Radcliffe, sitting in the orchestra side-sections. Their teachers and parental escorts were a little dismayed at the sight of Rosemary in nothing but her corset. Given that this is 1961, and Rosemary’s supposed to the “nice girl”, it was a bit unseemly. The producers might want to consider producing a dressing screen for Rosemary, at least for the matinees.

Yes, How to Succeed is just as funny as it must have been in 1961. I laughed so much I nearly hyperventilated. The “Old Ivy” and “Brotherhood of Man” numbers give Dan a chance to show what he can do on his feet. He’s nimble and athletic. The choreography for “Old Ivy” was clever and inventive, giving a nod to modern times. Dan handled his solos extremely well, particularly “I Believe in You.” He sings like he’s six feet tall.

The kids in this audience loved the whole thing. They may have come to see Harry Potter, but they came away loving J. Pierrepont Finch and the entire cast of How to Succeed. If you can keep in mind that you’re back in 1962, with the concomitant humor, and if the Paris Original number can be a little more discreet, definitely find the funds (or stand in line for three hours for the $30 RUSH tickets) to take your kids – or your co-workers - to see How to Succeed.


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