There are times when a wizard has to try to cast new spells.
Three years ago, "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe came to Broadway for "Equus" and proved himself a solid dramatic actor.
His current transformation into a song-and-dance man isn't quite so convincing in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
Making his first foray into musical comedy and stepping into a part made famous by Robert Morse, Radcliffe is a likable but very boyish presence. He shows off a pleasant singing voice as corporate climber J. Pierrepont Finch, but he's waxen and not animated enough to make Finch soar. His take on his character's personal pep talk, "I Believe in You," emerges dispiriting.
Still, director-choreographer Rob Ashford's production is bright, cheerful and energetic, that's for sure. But at times its supersized mentality and occasionally garish qualities compete with the sleek and sophisticated brilliance of the material.
Based on Shepherd Mead's best-seller, this 1962 Pulitzer Prize winner is peerless in its topical satire on corporate America, a world in which a window washer like Finch can end up in the executive suite with a little conniving.
Frank Loesser, in his last Broadway hit, was in top form when he wrote the show. The songs are gems, from the cautionary "A Secretary Is Not a Toy" to the cheery "Been a Long Day."
Ashford made his Broadway directing debut last year with "Promises, Promises." He's better known as a choreographer and has filled the show with big production numbers.
His dances are muscular, athletic and can be a little excessive. "Company Way," in which mailmen move like automated postal machines, is just plain wonderful. But when secretaries tap-dance and furiously kick file cabinets in "Cinderella Darling," it's steno pool on steroids.
The show is packed with stunning visuals. Scenic designer Derek McLane has filled the stage with towering honeycomb panels that constantly change colors. And Catherine Zuber seems to have found inspiration for her vivid costumes in a Chiclets box.
The supporting cast lend colorful support. "Night Court" alum John Larroquette is terrific as the grumpy, slightly befuddled president of the company. Newcomer Rose Hemingway makes a sweetly perky Rosemary, Finch's love interest.
Tammy Blanchard is devilishly sexy and funny as the battleship-shaped bombshell Hedy La Rue — a role that recalls "Mad Men's" Joan.
The cast also includes Christopher J. Hanke as Finch's nemesis, Bud Frump; Michael Park, as company man Mr. Bratt, and Anderson Cooper as the disembodied voice that guides Finch up the corporate ladder.
The show has one of the best finales ever with "Brotherhood of Man," a number in which all the stops are pulled. At last we see Radcliffe cut loose with the rest of the company in this rousing celebration.
If only the rest of this "How to" had climbed to such exuberant and dizzying heights.
Daniel Radcliffe is so adorable in his Broadway musical debut, you just want to pinch his cheeks. It's not just his youth -- the "Harry Potter" star is 21 -- but the endearing amount of dedication and enthusiasm he pours into steering the new revival of "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
"This boy is the eagerest beaver of them all," observes a secretary named Smitty (Mary Faber). She's talking about Radcliffe's character, J. Pierrepont Finch, but she might as well be describing the actor. He really exerts himself as an ambitious, manipulative striver who, contrary to the title, climbs the corporate ladder by trying hard -- at outwitting the competition.
After "Equus," Radcliffe aims to establish himself as a quadruple threat: He acts, sings, dances and delivers a perfectly fine American accent. The effort put into the performance is noticeable -- you feel the hours of rehearsal, especially during the dance numbers – and it'll be interesting to revisit the show in a few weeks, when he's relaxed into the role.
Rob Ashford has surrounded his novice lead with a zesty production of Frank Loesser's tuner. After "Promises, Promises," the director-choreographer returns to the 1960s with tighter results. The dancing is both lively and ingenious -- in the mambo "Coffee Break," caffeine-deprived employees stagger like horror-movie zombies.
Derek McLane's modular, cell-based set suggests a modernist hive in which worker bees battle each other for promotions. The more incompetent they are, the sneakier they act to please the big boss, J.B. Biggley (John Larroquette, making a swell Broadway debut). The worst of the lot -- and Finch's envious rival -- is Biggley's nephew, Bud Frump (the wickedly funny Christopher J. Hanke).
While the men buzz about self-importantly, the women provide support as secretaries and girlfriends -- this isn't a feminist kinda show, and unfortunately, the female leads overcompensate.
As Rosemary Pilkington, who sets her cap for Finch, Rose Hemingway is overly brash, as if to prove she's no pushover, even as she sings "Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm." Meanwhile, Tammy Blanchard plays foxy airhead Hedy La Rue as if she were permanently tipsy, swaying in an invisible breeze.
Happily, it's not long before Radcliffe is back, front and center. His glare, fixed in concentration, adds an interesting menace to "I Believe in You," and it's giddy fun to watch him shake his little tush in "Brotherhood of Man."
Welcome to the wonderful world of musicals, Daniel. We hope you'll stick with it.
Got a minute to listen to a pitch for a new reality-television series? It’s a guaranteed winner. You know “Dancing With the Stars”? Well, imagine taking it one step further.
Instead of teaching some unlikely, nondancing celebrities to do the cha-cha, you train them to star in a big Broadway musical, with fancy sets and chorus lines. It could be called “Singing, Dancing and Acting With the Stars — on Broadway (With Fancy Sets and Chorus Lines).”
O.K., maybe the title needs work. But if you want to see a prototype for an entry in this series, take a look at the new production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” which opened on Sunday night at the Al Hirschfeld Theater. Its leading man is Daniel Radcliffe, the little wizard that could from the Harry Potter movies; and while Mr. Radcliffe is clearly not to the musical manner born, I would give him, oh, a 6 out of 10.
There’s little doubt that audiences will feel like rooting for Mr. Radcliffe in Rob Ashford’s charm-free revival of Frank Loesser’s 1961 musical about corporate ladder climbing. This 21-year-old British actor, who made a creditable Broadway debut as the psycho stable boy in “Equus” in 2008, conscientiously hits his choreographic marks, speaks his lines quickly and distinctly (with a convincing American accent) and often sings on key.
You can almost hear an unseen coach’s voice whispering to Mr. Radcliffe, telling him when to do what. And because you so feel the effort and eagerness with which Mr. Radcliffe responds to that voice, you truly want him to succeed, just as you hope a favorite athlete or hip-hop artist will avoid elimination on “Dancing With the Stars.”
But you don’t particularly want his character in the show to succeed, and that really is a problem. He portrays the self-invented J. Pierrepont Finch, a boyish man without a discernible past who — by systematically following the rules of a book that shares its title with this musical — works his way ever upward at the World Wide Wicket Company in New York City.
“How to Succeed,” which won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for drama, was rather refreshing for its time in that Ponty (as he asks people to call him) was just as calculating and amoral as some other top-of-the-heap businessmen in real life. And he didn’t have to die or repent or even apologize for doing so well, so coldly.
But the show’s book writers (Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert) failed to give Ponty any defining traits beyond all-consuming ambition. It was left to whoever played him to provide the extras, like a personality. Robert Morse, who created the role on Broadway, endowed him with an irresistible impish energy that is evident even in the so-so 1967 movie. Matthew Broderick brought to the 1995 Broadway revival a “take me I’m yours” passivity that verged on the robotic but won him a Tony anyway.
Mr. Radcliffe’s performance goes even further, purging Ponty of any individualizing quirks. He’s a tabula rasa who absorbs his professional bible’s lessons on whom to stroke and how. This blank-slate aspect is unconditionally supported by the prevailing blankness of Mr. Radcliffe’s face.
Whenever Ponty smiles at his latest stroke of good fortune (a change in expression wittily underlined by music and lighting), it’s a wee bit chilling. You understand why this guy’s co-workers resent and fear him. He’s like some super automaton who has been thrust into their midst both to mock and eliminate them.
I suppose there’s a case to be made for reconceiving “How to Succeed” as a variation on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Certainly, Derek McLane’s sets, color-coded visions of modernist honeycomb architecture (matched by Catherine Zuber’s interchangeable off-the-rack business suits and secretarial outfits), would seem to support the notion of an assembly-line world.
But generally, this production doesn’t have a sensibility to call its own, unless you count the evident feeling of relief that — thanks to the success of “Mad Men” — you don’t have to make excuses for enjoying the bad behavior of sexist cads in neckties from the early ’60s. As both director and choreographer, Mr. Ashford, who took on the same era with similar results in last season’s revival of “Promises, Promises,” keeps the show moving nimbly enough. (The original book, to which this version sticks closely, is as well built as Hedy La Rue, the show’s resident lust object, played here by Tammy Blanchard.)
Most of the supporting cast is passable and generic. As J. B. Biggley, the head of World Wide Wicket, John Larroquette (best known for television’s “Night Court”) provides some funny throwaway line readings, though he also frequently throws away clear diction. Rose Hemingway is pretty and squeaky as the secretary who sets her cap for Ponty. Christopher J. Hanke, who plays Ponty’s rival (and the boss’s nephew), is a natural male ingénue trying to pass himself off as a character actor. Rob Bartlett is both grumpy and twinkly as two different managerial types.
Only Ellen Harvey, as Mr. Biggley’s seen-it-all-secretary, and Ms. Blanchard, who gives an original comic spin to her bombshell character, have some distinctive flair. Oh, yes, the recorded voice of the newscaster Anderson Cooper is heard as the narrator, exuding an appropriate deadpan wryness.
The dancing features a lot of the dervish twirls and 90-to-180-degree kicks that Mr. Ashford favored in recent London revivals of “Evita” and “Guys and Dolls,” as well as in “Promises, Promises.” (High kicking and twirling are evidently common to all times and places.) Loesser’s songs are wonderful, of course, top-of-the-line models of tuneful wit and economy. But they aren’t rendered here with the conviction that might make them ring new.
That makes Mr. Radcliffe the only reason to see the show, and contrary to what the title suggests, this young actor really, really tries. (He even does a somersault and lets himself be passed through the air for a football fantasy sequence.) His effortful performance is sure to stir maternal instincts among women of all ages (and probably some men too) and comradely protectiveness among his fans.
And — who knows? — perhaps with time this game, engaged performer will come up with a real character to play here. Meanwhile, when he leads the show’s big finale, the satirical rouser “Brotherhood of Man,” you can be forgiven for thinking it might better be titled “Brotherhood of Manikins.”
It's an old showbiz rule that a performer should never make his job look like work. But there are times when it's great fun to watch an actor, particularly a famous one, rise to an obvious challenge.
The 21-year-old screen veteran already proved his stage worthiness in a 2008 revival of the psychological melodrama Equus. But this 1961 Frank Loesser musical requires a different set of skills, and not just the ability to sing and dance.
How to Succeed — even more than Loesser's masterwork, Guys and Dolls — relies on the audience's willingness to embrace its often bumbling characters and their specific (and at this point, dated) world. Old-fashioned musical comedy of this nature demands a breezy joyousness that can actually be a lot harder to achieve than it looks.
If Radcliffe doesn't provide a study in loosey-goosey virtuosity, he certainly captures and savors the joy. The role of J. Pierrepont Finch, a window washer turned corporate con artist who flatters and schemes his way to the top in early 1960s Manhattan, accommodates a certain self-consciousness. Addressing the executives who will speed along his ascent at the World Wide Wicket Company, this young Finch speaks rapidly and purposefully, so that we always see the wheels spinning behind his schoolboy smile.
But as complications arise — many involving Finch's pompous, philandering boss, J.B. Biggley, and Biggley's weaselly nephew/employee, Bud Frump — Radcliffe relaxes enough to revel in the controlled chaos. He also reveals, in the musical numbers, a serviceable tenor and sufficient rhythmic savvy to handle Loesser's jaunty, jazz-tinged score.
The orchestra, under David Chase's direction, serves that score ravishingly, and director/choreographer Rob Ashford guides the onstage proceedings with similar stylishness and exuberance. The production numbers are full of high-spirited, period-perfect humor, enhanced by Catherine Zuber's eye-candy costumes. Radcliffe sports a blazing turquoise bow tie, while the female principals and chorus are decked out in a parade of bright pastels.
Pink is the color favored by Finch's love interest, the sweetly feisty secretary Rosemary Pilkington, who via newcomer Rose Hemingway becomes this season's most adorable and vivacious ingénue. Tammy Blanchard also shines as Biggley's dimwitted mistress, bringing sassy swagger and comic panache to the bimbo role.
John Larroquette's Biggley is less of an instant hit, showing even more of a tendency to rush through lines than Radcliffe does, though with less obvious character-based incentive. But Larroquette grows funnier and more lovable as the show progresses, and manages an endearing chemistry with the considerably younger (and shorter) leading man.
In fact, Radcliffe ultimately succeeds not by overshadowing his fellow cast members, but by working in conscientious harmony with them — and having a blast in the process.