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How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying – Los Angeles Theater Review

 

LOESSER IS MORE

 

picture - how to succeedTheater Review

by Harvey Perr 

published May 18, 2010 

 

How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying

now playing in Los Angeles at the Freud Playhouse on the UCLA Campus  

through May 23   

 

Why, when you are offered cookies on a silver platter and each new cookie tastes better than the one before, is it that, when you reflect upon eating all those tasty cookies, you have a way of remembering the one cookie in the bunch that you didn’t like?  Well, not so much didn’t like, but somehow, its taste was a little off – good, in fact, but just not as buttery or as sugary as the others. Dilemma.

 

Reprise Theatre Company, our very own West Coast version of New York's "Encores!" series, is one of L.A.’s genuine treasures, giving us – as they do time and again, with limited rehearsal time – scaled-back versions of musical comedies that are so good in so many ways that it seems downright churlish to tell them to stop serving cookies just because there was a disappointment among the goodies. Well, as J. Pierrepont Fitch, the lethal imp who mischievously and hilariously climbs to the top of the corporate ladder in Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows’ How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, says, “Say it I must.”

 

picture - how to succeedLet me give you the good news first. There is, if you didn’t already know it, a chance to discover that Frank Loesser wrote a damned good score that sounds even better now than it ever did. And the folks at Reprise never pull the stops out when it comes to letting us hear a good score. The arrangements are terrific, the voices are good, the crispness of the lyrics can be heard loudly, clearly and sometimes even beautifully. And the book (written by Burrows in collaboration with Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, and based on Shepherd Mead’s book of the same name), though it does creak a bit here and there, still makes a comic impact. This sort of corporate chicanery – wink, wink – still gets well-deserved yucks.

 

And, when you think of how speedily this long musical moves along, you’ve got to hand it to Marcia Milgrom Dodge, who directed and choreographed it, and to the fine cast she has assembled, for whipping up so much push and drive, for making the evening slide and glide the way it does, for keeping us so fully entertained that we don’t even notice that bum cookie until we’ve  left the theater and are practically home.

 

picture - how to succeedI guess, in the excitement of getting it all together in such a short time, one may not even have the time to worry about finer points, like what it is that is at the heart of How To Succeed. There is a great difference between satire and sitcom, between the sly tailored sophistication of one and the ready-to-wear shtick of the other.  One makes you look over your shoulder; the other doesn’t make you think at all. It just flings the pie in your face and you have no choice but to laugh. But, once you’ve wiped your face clean, you may very well ask if that was entirely necessary. How To Succeed is not fluff. It won the Pulitzer Prize (whether or not it deserved it is an argument for another time), so there are reasons for getting a little down and dirty with it and not just laughing at its every joke.

 

Some of the cast gets it right despite the pressure to keep it moving right along – Nicole Parker as Rosemary, the girl who loves Finch and is a tad stupid for clinging to that love; Michael Kostroff as Mr. Twimble, whose version of “The Company Way” hews most closely to what one thinks of as satire; Ruth Williamson, who can always be depended on to be no-nonsense and still sing out – and some, moving closer to the design of the evening, manage to move into the arena of slapstick without losing a sense of character – Simon Helberg as Bud Frump, whose puckish portrayal of that nasty bit of business nearly steals the show; Vicki Lewis, a secretary, who doesn’t let a tight skirt and a funny wig dominate her rich merry-making. But almost everybody else is a cardboard cutout.

 

Almost.

 

picture - how to succeedWhich brings us to the star of the evening. Josh Grisetti is a real find, a young man who is clearly headed for a sparkling future. He has presence and he knows how to take command of the stage, and he has a fine voice. And when he hits his stride near the end of the first act, singing “Rosemary,” one gets that little tingle you get when you sense something important is happening onstage. But Grisetti is, finally,  just too nice to play Finch at this moment; when he is mean to Rosemary, you don’t like him because you don’t believe him, and an unlikeable Finch – even if your inclination is to spit on him if he existed in real life – is as bad as a too-likeable Finch, and Grisetti is both, and not at the same time.  (It may be unfair to say so, but a visit to YouTube to see Robert Morse sing “I Believe In You” or “Brotherhood of Man” will show you not only how it should be done but why Morse made the part so much his own.) Without a wonderful Finch, How To Succeed, no matter how successfully it tries, never really takes off. All told, there is too much trying to succeed in this revival, not enough “without really trying.”  It cries out for effortlessness, not strain.

 

And yet, watching Grisetti – whose innate warmth and friendliness, whose gangly charm, whose delicacy of movement, and whose physical grace can’t help but put you in mind of a young Ray Bolger – I couldn’t stop thinking about how extraordinary he might be in a revival (long overdue) of another Frank Loesser musical, Where’s Charley?  For now, Grisetti is a poppyseed cookie on a silver platter of Oreos.  He's delicious, he's different, and he doesn't quite fit in. 

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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