Theater reviews: ‘How to Succeed’ and ‘Priscilla’ on Broadway

Daniel Radcliffe, the plucky young anchor of the “Harry Potter” franchise, is in dire straits once again, entangled in a scary predicament requiring the fortitude and resourcefulness of a wizard of far greater experience than his.

He’s starring in a Broadway musical.

Is there no charm that can save him? “Experto Musicalis!” maybe? Because as winningly game and diligent as he shows himself to be in the new, terminally un-magical revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” he’s out of his league, singing and dancing his way through the role of brazen corporate impostor J. Pierrepont Finch.

Radcliffe is the latest star from the movies to be miscast on Broadway: Remember Hugh Jackman as, oy, a gritty Chicago cop in “A Steady Rain” or Jessica Lange struggling through “The Glass Menagerie”? As he did with “Equus” a couple of seasons ago, he does apply himself like an honors student in the revival that opened Sunday night at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. It becomes apparent, though, that Radcliffe’s skills do not include showmanship, an attribute this slick part cries out for. Because carrying a tune is not the same as carrying a production, and merely talking fast does not a fast-talker make.

The star’s cause is not bolstered much by director-choreographer Rob Ashford. His concept for the early ’60s satire of American business — the story of a smarmily engaging young man who lies his way to the top — is to stylistically turn up the volume, saturating the stage in candy colors and frantic dances. As a result, the musical’s digs at corporate life, at the overgrown bureaucracy and ingrown elitism, lose the whiff of sophistication that Frank Loesser’s score emits.

“Grand Old Ivy,” Finch’s droll bamboozling of the company’s beleaguered top dog, J.B. Biggley (John Larroquette), is turned here into an overcaffeinated number that has overtones of the frenetic mechanics of inferior works like “Legally Blonde, the Musical.” Biggley’s college fight song has been elevated to veritable athletic event, with Radcliffe trying to execute football moves and other acrobatics, along with a corps of male dancers. You can see the concentration on Radcliffe’s face as he tries to keep up, and it’s a little painful to watch. (A sharper production might have found ways to turn Radcliffe’s challenges into a disarming shtick.)

The aggressive attention to the surface of the musical — Catherine Zuber’s “Mad Men’’-era costumes dance a matchy-matchy jig with Derek McLane’s beehive backdrop of blinking lights — obscures the wit of the book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, which with Loesser’s score was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. And the casting in general feels odd. The cagey Larroquette as the butt of the joke? Come on! Once upon a time, he might have been a pretty good Finch, in point of fact.

Only Tammy Blanchard’s offbeat Hedy La Rue, the bombshell toxic to everyone except the executive who’s squiring her, earns the requisite laughs. Radcliffe, meanwhile, sings the infectious tunes — “Rosemary,” “I Believe in You,” “Brotherhood of Man” — ad­equate­ly, a level of accomplishment that appears to be satisfactory to his armies of fans. On the night I was there, they filled the balcony, clapping wildly — not so much for Finch, though, as for the hero of Hogwarts.

Winsome ‘Priscilla’

If “How to Succeed” charts the downside for a show with a wanting pivotal performance, another recently opened musical, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” demonstrates the benefits when a surprising central portrayal takes the spotlight. The happier trajectory occurs thanks to Tony Sheldon, who plays a drag artist of certain age on an unlikely bus ride into the Australian Outback in this appealingly hokey jukebox musical.

Based on the 1994 cult-hit movie of the same title that featured Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp, “Priscilla,” at Broadway’s Palace Theatre, is packed with songs popularized by the likes of Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and Gloria Gaynor. How bad could a musical be that offers up such flashily enjoyable renditions of “Material Girl,” “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “I Will Survive”?

The assets, too, include the ever more outrageous costumes by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, a wardrobe worn with ladylike elan by Sheldon and his co-stars, Will Swenson and Nick Adams. (The architectural extravaganza Swenson sports at the curtain call should be landmarked.) But it is Sheldon’s turn as a soigne fixture of Sydney’s drag scene that gives “Priscilla” some soul. While no one would mistake this show for a serious prize winner, its neon rainbow of loopiness is far more worthy of accolades than the manufactured colorfulness of the business-world musical a block or two away.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert. Directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford. Sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Jon Weston; orchestrations, Doug Besterman; music direction, David Chase. With Rob Bartlett, Christopher J. Hanke, Rose Hemingway. About 2 hours 40 minutes. At Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St., New York. Visit www.telecharge.com or call 800-432-7250.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott. Directed by Simon Phillips. Sets, Brian Thomson; costumes, Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner; lighting, Nick Schlieper; sound, Jonathan Deans and Peter Fitzgerald; music supervision, Stephen “Spud” Murphy; choreography, Ross Coleman. About 2 hours 20 minutes. At Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, New York. Visit www.ticketmaster.com or call 877-250-2929.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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