Chicago Theater Review: HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (Porchlight)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 30, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

WHEN THE MIDDLE CLASS MATTERED

The best thing about this well-earned, state-of-the-art revival of Frank Loesser’s Pulitzer-winning masterwork is this:  No one dared to update what must now be a vintage Eisenhower-Era period piece, as much as AMC’S Mad Men or The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

Tyler Ravelson as J. Pierrepont Finch, Matthias Austin as Twimble and John Keating as Bud Frump in Porchlight’s HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING.

It wouldn’t take anyway. Though fast-moving and mildly satirical, the silly script, by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, remains anchored in 1961. It doggedly delivers the proverbial button-down, organization-man stereotype, as well as big business’ love-hate affair with conformity, togetherness, and team spirit.

Tyler Ravelson as J. Pierrepont Finch in Porchlight’s HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING.

Decades before downsizing, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying gently exposes a corporation’s ambivalent fear of and need for hot-shot innovators. In a business “where no one knows exactly what anyone else is doing,” appearances shift power; landing on your feet means everything. That’s the male ethic anyway: As if trapped in a time capsule, the secretaries’ one hope for advance is to marry a boss who’s going places and can take direction; sexual harassment means a house on Long Island.

Tyler Ravelson as J. Pierrepont Finch and Elizabeth Telford as Rosemary in Porchlight’s HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING.

Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago’s revival of this slick and cynical object lesson, the tale of how a window washer—the ultimate outsider—uses wizard timing, shrewd research, negative psychology, and luck—both good and bad—to rise to the top of the World Wide Wicket Company.

A faithful practitioner of Shepherd Mead’s real-life 1952 manual “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” (its advice portentously intoned here by Chicago favorite Bill Kurtis), J. Pierrepont 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.

Sharriese Hamilton as Smitty and the cast perform ‘Coffee Break’ in Porchlight Music Theatre’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Rising from an ambitious blue-collar toiler, wily Finch merrily schemes his way from the mailroom to the boardroom of the firm. Along the way he toadies up to the CEO, drops names, flatters, backstabs, and throws blame–everything but blackmail (that’s the province of nerdy Bud Frump, the CEO’s weaselly nephew).

Fred Zimmerman as Mr. Biggley and Tyler Ravelson as J. Pierrepont Finch in Porchlight Music Theatre’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

As this pizzazz-packed production proves, Loesser packed a ton of fun into his inexhaustible romp. A great tune, “The Company Way,” remains an astute pillorying of the “yes man” mentality. Though some things wax eternal (like the withdrawal symptoms in “Coffee Break” as the office runs out of java), much in this gentle spoof of big business small-mindedness is dated indeed, if not outright atavistic: Witness “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” the domestic love ballad warbled by Rosemary, the secretary who can only rise by clinging to the right climber. Even the tongue-in-cheek “A Secretary Is Not a Toy” undermines its lyrics with its mating-dance choreography. But, bubbly and bright, it’s as pre-feminist progressive as 1961 ever got.

Fred Zimmerman as Mr. Biggley and Emily Ariel Rogers as Hedy La Rue IN Porchlight Music Theatre’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

The constant pleasure throughout these 165 minutes should be to watch J. Pierrepont “the eagerest beaver of them all” Finch plot on a dime, so to speak. He pretends to have worked all night to impress the boss he knows comes in on Saturday morning. He sends the boss’ mistress to a philandering rival who soon cleans out his desk. He merrily confounds Frump’s half-baked plots, sending him into constipated conniptions. Naturally, the one advertising decision that Finch finally makes–to hold a nationally televised treasure hunt–ends in disaster. Even here he bounces back.

Emily Ariel Rogers as Hedy La Rue and Jason Grimm as Mr. Bratt in Porchlight Music Theatre’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Rob Lindley’s revival is sturdy, dutiful, and efficient. Performed on Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s blandly modular set, with roll-in props charting the many scene changes, it’s almost a ballet of middle management. Brenda Didier’s industrial-strength choreography fairly soars with “Coffee Break,” “Secretary,” and “Paris Original”—and peaks with the joyous breakout frenzy of “Brotherhood of Man,” featuring Iris Lieberman hoofing up a storm as the one woman who broke into the brotherhood. That second-act rouser remains an enthusiastic anthem, even if it is built from a non sequitur.

Elizabeth Telford as Rosemary, Tyler Ravelson as J. Pierrepont Finch and Sharriese Hamilton as Smitty in Porchlight Music Theatre’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

The story still works. Loesser’s songs work their mainstream magic. However broadly drawn, the supporting roles offer corporate caricatures worthy of Dilbert, especially Fred Zimmerman’s unctuous boss and Lieberman as his crusty but kind-hearted secretary. As the odious Frump, a madly mugging John Keating, channeling the ghost of Paul Lynde, almost pushes the geek’s goofiness into absurdity.

Elizabeth Telford as Rosemary in Porchlight’s HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING.

Of course half the humor hinges on Finch: A spunky and effortless warbler, Tyler Ravelson certainly suggests the guile, desperation or relish of this born manipulator, an imposter always teetering on the edge of exposure. But, compared to such predecessors as Robert Morse, Matthew Broderick, and Ralph Macchio, Ravelson is a bit charm-challenged, more character actor than adorable climber. (Finch should be as different from Bud Frump as possible–and that just doesn’t happen here.) As his helpmate Rosemary, Elizabeth Telford seems equally bland but then that self-effacement comes with the territory. They’re altogether right for each other—and that may be the secret satire in an otherwise pseudo-conformist musical delight.

photos by Kelsey Jorissen

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Porchlight Music Theatre
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Fri at 8:00 pm, Sat at 4:00 & 8:00 pm, Sun at 2:00 pm
scheduled to end on June 1, 2014
for tickets, call 773.327.5252 or visit www.porchlightmusictheatre.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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