Review: ‘How to Succeed’ at Olney Theatre Center


Pierrepont Finch’s (Sam Ludwig, center) rise up the corporate ladder has the other executives at the World Wide Wicket Company nervous in the Olney Theatre Center production of ”How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” (Stan Barouh)

In the Pulitzer-winning 1961 musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” the workplace is a blast. Adrenaline and moxie pulse through the title tune and through songs like “Coffee Break” and “A Secretary Is Not a Toy,” and the plot about a cheerful young backstabber making hay in corporate culture — well, that’s just devilish fun.

Any good production of this durably engineered musical will slap a silly grin across your face, and that’s what’s happening with the high-spirited revival now at the Olney Theatre Center. The troupe has been pushing its song-and-dance capabilities to new limits lately; see last winter’s crisp “Spring Awakening” and the admirable revival of the demanding “A Chorus Line” after that. This show is bigger and brassier, and the Olney team swarms it with businesslike discipline and comic verve.

“How to Succeed” is the best kind of old-school musical comedy, thanks to a peppy and impish book (by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert) and a savvy score by “Guys and Dolls” composer Frank Loesser. Director Jason Loewith unleashes his cast on a big, sleek set (by James Dardenne, who also designed the projections) that suggests the bustling industrial power of World Wide Wickets — the pressurized setting of the show — while leaving ample room for big production numbers such as “Coffee Break” and “Secretary.”

A frequent trap with this type of broad, winking musical is overworking the jokes and sailing into an absurd cartoonland, but the production by Loewith (now a full year into his tenure as the Olney’s artistic director) turns out to have near-perfect pitch. It’s merry but never gaudy or gauche, starting with Seth Gilbert’s bright and amusing costumes. The men’s gray suits are sharp and the women’s dresses are vibrant solids; they’re clever, but not too loud or clownish, and they never upstage the actors. Even Gilbert’s initial getup for the randy bombshell Hedy LaRue is amusingly tacky without pressing for its own laughs.

The design consistently matches the wry effervescence of the script and score, and the cast — slyly led by Sam Ludwig ­as ­­J. Pierrepont Finch, the young window washer who weasels his way into boardrooms — responds with a collectively smart, pixilated performance. Ludwig, a solid singer, lightly and surely holds the center together as Finch sabotages his increasingly nervous colleagues and floats to the top as naturally as a bubble of champagne. Dirty tricks? ­Nahhh: All-American ambition and free-market initiative, that’s what it is!

Dan Van Why delivers a blissfully twitchy performance as Bud Frump, Finch’s chief rival, while controlled animated turns are provided by Lawrence Redmond as company president J.J. Biggley and by Harry A. Winter, playing two roles at opposite ends of the corporate ladder. As Hedy, Colleen Hayes nicely stops short of going full bimbo, Aileen Goldberg is tart as an astute secretary named Smitty, and Angela Miller is amusingly doe-eyed yet practical as Rosemary, Finch’s would-be wife and partner in crime.

The cast is unusually well- balanced, and the talent runs deep. Sherri L. Edelen, fresh off her turn as Mama Rose in Signature Theatre’s “Gypsy,” is an excellent secret weapon in the small but explosive role of Miss Jones, Biggley’s secretary. In another touch of class, the voice-over narration from the handbook Finch devours is provided by none other than Ian McKellen.

Musical director Christopher Youstra has just a nine-piece orchestra to play Loesser’s score, but the score sounds fine because he uses real horns and winds, not electronic keyboards faking it. It’s a long show with practically no drag, even over 23 / 4 hours. By the time it hits the great number “Brotherhood of Man” (with percolating choreography by Tommy Rapley), Finch’s con is unstoppable — and it’s swell to be taken for his kind of ride.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Directed by Jason Loewith. Lights, Joel Moritz; sound design, Jeff Dorfman. With MaryLee Adams, Kurt Boehm, Maggie Donnelly, George Dvorsky, Ashleigh King, Bryan Knowlton, David Landstrom, Allie Parris, Taylor Elise Rector and Chris Rudy. About two hours and 45 minutes. Tickets $32.50-$65. Through Feb. 23 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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