Georgie Rankcom’s adaptation of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a colourful comedy that laughs at corporate culture and business stereotypes. Composed by Frank Loesser with a book by Abe Burrows, Jack Wenstock and Wille Gilbert, this satirical look at capitalism is a surprisingly faithful rehashing of the same musical which, whilst fun, doesn’t bring much excitement.
A colourful comedy that laughs at corporate culture.
Using a book titled How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying tells the story of J. Pierrepoint Finch (Gabrielle Friedman) who climbs the corporate ladder of The World Wide Wicket Company, using a book of the same name. The book helps Finch navigate corporate hurdles like applying for a job, being assigned a secretary, and coming up with ideas.
The problem with the musical is that it has an identity crisis; it can’t seem to decide whether it’s a comedy or a workplace drama, which is seen in the stark contrast between the two acts. Because of this, it seems like we’re watching two different musicals, and Rankcom’s direction hasn’t quite reconciled the fault of the book. The second act lets the rest of the musical down; it’s confusing and most of the humour is in Act I. With a thrust stage, masking is always a risk but in this production, there seemed to be more of it than usual, simply because the actors are mostly static, and because of the height differences between some of them (for comic effect of course), we only see the back of someone’s head, and so we miss some of the humour just because we can’t see whatever the actor is doing in order to amplify the joke, something that Rankcom should have considered.
Considering this is a revival, we have to ask what’s new? Unfortunately, the answer is nothing, and many opportunities to make it different and provide original commentary are simply missed. For example, the song A Secretary Is Not A Toy has the potential to spill into a full-bodied feminist anthem considering our own cultural and political context, but in this adaptation it's barely a blip on our radar. Also, the fact that the nepo-baby Bud Frump is a more compelling, entertaining and welcome presence onstage than J. Pierrepont Finch - the self-made man - who you’d think we would typically be more inclined to root for, seems very upside down. The overall design is faithful to previous productions that grounds the musical in a 50s/60s setting, and so is this revival a commentary on the American dream and corporate culture; is it trying to show that there’s a universality to these ideas, but if that’s the case, why keep it as a period piece?
‘Colour’ is the unifying word of this production's technical design. The design keeps to a very traditional, naturalistic style and the technicolour background seems to be the only thing that indicates that this is a make-believe workplace. Alexzandra Sarmiento’s choreography throws the actors into wild, swinging dance breaks, giving them room and opportunities to move around a stage that seems smaller than is advisable for such big dance numbers, but it works. Sophia Pardon’s costume design gives each character their own colour, providing variation to the workplace outfits. Indications of character are particularly present in Rosemary and Hedy’s outfits, the styles of dress highlighting the simplistic Mary and Magdalene binary of female characters in musical theatre. The main part of Pardon’s set design is visually and aesthetically pleasing, and takes the literal interpretation of ‘climbing the corporate ladder', by prominently placing a neon ladder, which is a very versatile and striking piece of set. Luca Sànchez Roldàn’s lighting design is noticeably brightly-coloured, and we can tell that she really put a lot of thought into the songs, using the lights to add some slapstick to the action onstage, leaning into the ridiculousness of some of the moments in a very fun way.
The cast are enigmatic and they bring a lot of energy into their performances, especially the songs and dance numbers. They’ve really embraced the comedy of the show, and their careful deliberation over each joke shows in their performances. Annie Aitken embraces the stereotype of Hedy Larue, winking and nudging her way through a belter of a performance, making her more of a character than we'd initially thought. Rosemary as a character seems extremely one-dimensional, in the girl-next-door way, but Allie Daniel manages to add complexity in her performance. Daniel possesses a powerhouse of a voice which is best exemplified in Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm that she starts off with a light sweetness before adding support to her voice and finishing the song in an incredibly strong belt. The straight-faced optimism of Daniel’s delivery makes us consistently laugh, and she really carries the comedy of her scenes. It is very difficult to dismiss Bud Frump with Elliot Gooch in the role. A character that we know is a snake in the grass becomes a welcome stage presence, as Gooch schemes and slinks around. Most of Frump’s songs are reprises, and Gooch makes showstoppers out of them, overshadowing the previous iterations, putting as much character and leaning into his vocal abilities as much as he can within the space that he has. It’s difficult to make an antagonist understandable and more entertaining than the main character, but somehow Gooch has done just that, simply and by playing into the unlikeable, nepotistic nature of the character.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is bright, fun and easy to watch. A pleasant comedic break after a long day. Word of advice, you’ll have a nicer evening if you leave at the interval.