Post image for Theater Review: HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (Musical Theatre Guild)

by Tony Frankel on May 26, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles


Reams can and have been written about the glories of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, and book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock & Willie Gilbert, the 1961 musical satire that landed virtually unanimous raves would go on to run for over three years (1,417 performances) making it the fifth longest running musical at that time.

The news here is that Musical Theatre Guild — which has offered some of the finest nights in the theater with their staged-reading concerts — is once again live with Broadway performers, choreography, and a teeny tiny band at the Alex Theatre to bring us this swinging comedy. Alas, this one-time-only magical affair played only one night. It’s fascinating how enjoyable MTG’s concerts are given there are no sets, minimal costumes, 25-hour rehearsals, and scripts in actors’ hands (an Equity rule). But one day, we need to throw a huge bake sale so that this estimable gang can get a full orchestra. The whole point of seeing these rarely produced musicals is so we get a sense of the opening night’s performance, I would think. (Apologies to Music Director Dan Redfeld, who does a yeoman’s job up there on piano.)

A great thing about this well-earned revival of Frank Loesser’s Pulitzer-winning masterwork is this: Director Yvette Lawrence didn’t dare to update what must now be a vintage Eisenhower-Era period piece, as much as The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Though fast-moving and mildly satirical, the silly script doggedly delivers the proverbial button-down, organization-man stereotype, and — as if trapped in a time capsule — a secretary whose one hope for advance is to marry a boss who’s going places and can take direction.

Speaking of rarely produced: Um, How to Succeed? Yeah, not really. I mean, it’s rare that any mid-size house will be producing large-cast musicals anymore, especially in Los Angeles. Still, while Chicago is always bursting with musicals, New York has Encores!, and L.A.’s Reprise and Musical Theatre West’s Reading Series kaput, MTG’s smaller, one-night gigs are an oasis in L.A.’s vast sea of nothingness.

The story: Ambitious window washer J. Pierrepont Finch (the infectious Travis Leland) happens upon a book that offers instructions on the quickest way up the corporate ladder to success. Following the book’s instructions, Finch quickly lands a job in the mailroom of the World Wide Wicket Company. With the help of his handy book, Finch quickly gains promotions, outsmarts his rivals, and wins the love of a secretary at the company (delightful Chelsea Morgan Stock as Rosemary). A faithful practitioner of Shepherd Mead’s real-life same-titled 1952 manual (its advice intoned here by Susan Edwards Martin), Finch quickly works his way from the mail room to junior executive to vice-president until, proving the Peter Principle, he reaches his level of incompetence: chairman of the board.

Rising from an ambitious blue-collar toiler, wily Finch toadies up to the CEO (Thomas Ashworth as Biggley), sends the boss’s mistress (boom-boom Melissa Fahn as Hedy) to a philandering rival, drops names, flatters, backstabs, and throws blame — everything but blackmail, which happens to be the province of nerdy Bud Frump, the CEO’s weaselly nephew, played here with scene-stealing silliness and hilarious slapstick humor by Joshua Finkel.

[In fact — a moment. OK, Finkel, you win. I’m gonna admit when you blew on stage smacking everybody with your script, I actually felt giddy. Burlesque timing meets great voice meets … well, I didn’t mean to single you out, but there it is.]

And what a triumph of great tunes! “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” the domestic love ballad warbled by Rosemary, and the tongue-in-cheek “A Secretary Is Not a Toy,” sung by Bryan Chesters, are bubbly and bright, and as pre-feminist progressive as 1961 ever got, though some things wax eternal — like the withdrawal symptoms when the office runs out of java in “Coffee Break.” “The Company Way,” sung by James Gleason, remains an astute pillorying of the “yes man” mentality. On it goes, from “I Believe in You” to “Been a Long Day” (made hilarious by Katie DeShan as Smitty) to the anthemic “Brotherhood of Man,” featuring Kim Yarbrough who seemed a little dazed, which was slightly unnerving.

The story still works. Loesser’s songs work their mainstream magic, and however broadly drawn, the supporting roles offer corporate caricatures worthy of Dilbert. The costumes were delightful (Brent Schindele, where did you get that swell yellow plaid coat?), and everybody was in great voice. MTG knows how to succeed.

[An afternote for all you theater geeks:

Bookwriter Abe Burrows has been one of the American theatre’s most consistently successful theatre craftsmen — as a playwright, director and play-doctor — since he scored his first hit, the memorable Guys and Dolls (with songs also by Frank Loesser). But few know that book co-writers Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert were, respectively, a New York physician and — believe it or not — his patient, a transplanted Clevelander who turned to entertaining. The two teamed up to write nightclub material for Kaye Ballard and other celebrity entertainers, and later wrote sketches for the Broadway review Tickets, Please. From there they moved into TV, contributing scripts to a variety of dramas and comedies including over 1,000 scripts for Howdy Doody.

After reading Mead’s book, they tried to adapt How to Succeed into a straight comedy. After original producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin read the script, the team was persuaded into turning it into a musical comedy. They followed the success of How to Succeed with a mystery comedy Catch Me If You Can, which enjoyed a three-month run.]

photos courtesy of MTG

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Musical Theatre Guild
Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd. in Glendale
played Sunday, May 1, 2022 – 7:00 pm
for future events, visit MTG

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