It's kind of curious how often the prototypical 60s musicals "Promises, Promises" and especially "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" -- both sending up businessmen with or without their gray flannel suits -- are popping up in recent years. "Promises, Promises" was back on Broadway last year, while "How to Succeed" (also called "H2$" for short since the 1995 revival with Matthew Broderick) will see a new production with Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, in previews later this month.
Is it the "Mad Men" influence, where that popular show has us all yearning for stories about hot 1960s guys with short hair and narrow ties? A yearning for a time when success and climbing the corporate ladder seemed more achievable? Or maybe just that both "Promises, Promises" and "How to Succeed" provide terrific roles for their male stars, and that kind of showcase never goes out of style.
Director Connie de Veer takes the helm with "How to Succeed" at ISU's Center for the Performing Arts, successfully steering a large cast through big, brash, boffo musical numbers like "A Secretary Is Not a Toy" and "The Brotherhood of Man."
The CPA is an expansive space, but even so, moving some 38 people around John C. Stark's two-level set, with numerous wagons that roll on and off (and spin around) to show us different offices and spaces within the World Wide Wicket Company, complete with those big dance numbers, stylishly choreographed by ISU undergrad Lora Vodicka, is no small feat.
De Veer gets a lot of help from her leading player, Zack Powell, who gives us an appealing, fully-formed J. Pierrepont Finch, the window washer who is trying to make it to the top just by following the tips in a book also called "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." Powell is the best dancing Finch I've seen, which means choreographer Vodicka also gives him more dancing to do. Powell manages the job nicely, keeping his charm and energy intact throughout, including singing the anthem "I Believe in You" to himself, whipping through a crazy duet about groundhogs with the company president, and dancing a pas de deux with love interest Rosemary, winningly played by Colleen Longo. I liked it that he gave Finch more of a brain than, say, Broderick, although perhaps not as much devilment or mischief as Robert Morse, the original and quintessential Finch (who is also in "Mad Men.") Somehow Powell manages the ultimate trick for a musical comedy star; wherever he goes in a scene, the eye follows.
Longo is an excellent romantic foil for Powell, making her Rosemary spirited and smart, layering "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" with the irony it deserves, and never losing either her heart or her ambition. This is the first production of "How to Succeed" I've seen where it's clear Rosemary is on a "How to Succeed" mission of her own. Just as Finch wants to nab a spot at the top of the company, Rosemary wants to nab Finch, and she's playing the same kind of games he is. Making that kind of woman endearing is a tall order, yet Longo does it seemingly without even trying. She also sings beautifully, making her reprise of "I Believe in You" quite lovely.
Others of note in the cast include Eliza Morris, wiggling in her too-tight dress as bombshell Hedy LaRue; Joey Fitzpatrick as both Twimble, the long-time mailroom manager who never strays from "The Company Way" and a goofy TV announcer; Anthony Urso as bombastic J. B. Biggley, the big boss who does that groundhog number; Elizabeth Keach as Smitty, Rosemary's friend and compatriot; and definitely Justin Triezenberg as Bud Frump, the thorn in Finch's side as he makes his rise through the ranks. Triezenberg has all kinds of comic flourishes to make Frump stand out as the whiny, lazy, underhanded creature he is, and they all work.
I also enjoyed hearing Jack McLaughlin-Gray and his combination of gravitas and warning as the voice of authority, the personification of the book Finch is planning his career by.
Stark's set clues us into the era from the minute we see all those turquoise and coral squares, while Sandy Childers' costume design, relying on a ton of suits and a full array of dresses in different shades of pink and blue, looks just right, as well.
This is a fine "How to Succeed" all around. It's a long one, too, coming in with a two-hour first act. So be prepared to hang on for that first act; there's plenty of fun and lots of dancing in the second to make it worth your while.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert
ISU Center for the Performing Arts
Director: Connie de Veer
Musical Director: Dr. Glenn Block
Choreographer: Lora Vodicka
Scenic Designer: John C. Stark
Costume Designer: Sandy Childers
Lighting Designer: Marly Wooster
Sound Designer: Joe Payne
Cast: Zach Powell, Colleen Longo, Jack McLaughlin-Gray, Caitlin Boho, Patrick Boylan, Emily Brodzik, Danny Brooks, Chris Bryant, Nate Byrne, Lauren Colby, Sabrina Conti, Alyssa Donovan, David Fisch, Joey Fitzpatrick, Nina Ganet, Brian Garvens, Alex Hartman, Andy Hudson, Elizabeth Keach, Carlos Kmet, Alex Kostner, Jenny Koth, Yvette Kovalesky, Gaby Lobatka, Ryan Martinez, Eliza Morris, Carly Oros, Nicki Padron-Glass, Danny Rice, Fiona Stephens, Marissa Talorico, Nick Tangorra, Justin Triezenberg, Anthony Urso, Kyle Wynn.
Running time: 3 hours, including one 15-minute intermission
Remaining performances: February 11-12 and 15-19 at 7:30 pm; February 13 at 2 pm