Well, it’s really trying at times, that’s for sure. Salvaged by a rousing finale and a few other buoyant numbers, the Kennedy Center’s expertly executed “concert” revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” is a lively enough affair. But those hackneyed jokes — and that grating subplot about trapping a man! If director Marc Bruni reveals anything in a talent-packed production that runs through Sunday, it’s the 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical’s age.
“How to Succeed” is the third of the three inaugural offerings of the arts institution’s Broadway Center Stage series, and the closest of the three to a full-fledged production. Although actors in the previous two, “Chess” and “In the Heights,” sometimes toted scripts — a frequent fixture of concert stagings — the cast this time in the Eisenhower Theater carries on without them, and as if Broadway were in their sights.
The performers are indeed all Broadway caliber, among them the vocally blessed Skylar Astin, as charmingly conniving J. Pierrepont Finch, and Betsy Wolfe in the role of the indefatigable, husband-hunting Rosemary. Michael Urie puts the character of Bud Frump, the boss’s simpering nephew, in a joyful comic headlock, and John Michael Higgins is a suitably button-down J.B. Biggley, philandering alpha male on the randy executive floor of the World Wide Wicket Co.
Still, the humorous conceits of “How to Succeed,” charting Finch’s meteoric rise to the top thanks to a manual (recorded by an uncredited Bebe Neuwirth) and his own cheery ruthlessness, get less funny by the hour. What once seemed a stinging corporate-climbing satire now verges on self-parody. The retrograde division in a book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert of men and women into lordly and servile classes may correspond cartoonishly to the “Mad Men” sensibility of the time, but it offers a modern audience no useful layer of irony to cushion the crudeness.
Bruni’s strategy for softening the sexism is to make Wolfe’s Rosemary a predatory match for Finch. On this occasion, secretary Rosemary “works” her mark as assiduously as Finch does the World Wide Wicket bigwigs. Wolfe is a dynamic presence, and her fierce commitment to songs like “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” (cue the eye rolls) and “Paris Original” (about — yikes — the dress she’s going to wear to the office party) attempts to provide Rosemary with a mission that more resonantly illuminates her steely fortitude.
That can only be so much of a tonic for a musical suggesting the only goal of women in the working world is being “promoted” from Miss to Mrs. (For a more up-to-date view of feminine savvy in the boardrooms of the same period, see the recent musical “War Paint,” about cosmetics moguls Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.) Even less palatable these days is “How to Succeed’s” bombshell character, Hedy LaRue, Mr. Biggley’s mistress. Bruni and the actress who portrays her, Becki Newton, appear ambivalent about how ferociously to embody the stereotypical dumb blonde (she is on this occasion a redhead, a la Jill St. John), and so Hedy is not even an especially funny caricature; it’s a muted, untethered performance, one that almost feels as if it is haunting the production.
On the cityscape scaffolding erected by set designer Scott Pask (atop which sits the orchestra), Bruni and choreographer Denis Jones marshal the requisite amounts of bustling New York energy for Frank Loesser’s score. His music, as always, offers up a healthy earful of Broadway savoir-faire. “Coffee Break” has been imagined by Jones in sharp and bold new dance steps, and Astin’s “I Believe in You,” with Finch’s craven rivals forming a dashing executive washroom chorus, conveys all the song’s pretty earnestness. To top off the evening, there’s a rollicking version of “Brotherhood of Man,” capped by the exhilarating scat-singing of Nova Y. Payton’s Miss Jones.
As for the continuous supply in “How to Succeed” of wry commentary about achieving one’s goals by sucking up: well, a Washington audience seems particularly primed for that joke. At least those jabs are gender-neutral.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying , music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert. Directed by Marc Bruni. Choreography, Denis Jones; music direction, Todd Ellison; set, Scott Pask; costumes, Amy Clark; lighting Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Brian Ronan; projections, Caite Hevner; orchestrations, Danny Troob. With John Bolton, Tally Sessions, Joaquina Kalukango, Michael McGrath, Vishal Vaidya, Dwayne Clark. About 2 hours 40 minutes. $59-$175. Through Sunday at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. kennedy-center.org or 202-467-4600.