KPBS AIRDATE: November 23, 1994
MUSIC, under: Title song
The real star of the Broadway-bound Des McAnuff revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” isn’t Matthew Broderick. It isn’t even the memorable Frank Loesser score. The show is stolen by its technical brilliance.
McAnuff gathered together his talented “Tommy” design team, and they’ve just about out-dazzled themselves. John Arnone, that wizard of stage sets and projections, has brought computer animation and a moving, living, practically pulsating backdrop to the stage. Dick Tracy takes OmniMax to the Great White Way. Arnone’s set is a sixties office interior, all doors and lights and Mondrian lines, and everything is alive and mobile.
But it’s what goes on outside that bedazzles. Beyond the windows is the New York skyline, circa 1960. Clouds float by. We see a blimp from a distance, and then up close.
When the secretary Rosemary rhapsodically sings the hausfrau-wannabe “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” she dreams of settling down with her favorite executive in a cozy home in New Rochelle. Thanks to video-wonderwork and 3-D computer animation, we are whisked away on a breathless aerial journey to her fantasy-land. No less breathtaking is the trip we take every time anyone goes up or down the office elevator. The skyline moves; the whole theater seems to elevate or descend, ushering in a new era of theater magic.
Meanwhile, what’s the story downstage? In a satiric sendup of office politics, an ambitious window-washer scrambles up the corporate ladder at breakneck speed, on the advice he gets from a little self-improvement book for which the show is named. Much of the book’s wisdom is offered via voice-over, by the unmistakable voice of Walter Cronkite. What a vocal coup! (SOUND: Cronkite voice)
Playing Ponty as a sweet, faux-naïf, Matthew Broderick is doing Ferris Bueller Redux, right down to those doe-eyed stop-action glances at the audience. It’s a pleasant-enough portrayal, different enough from the show-stopping, career-making onslaught of Robert Morse in 1961, when the play won the Pulitzer Prize and was named Best Musical. Broderick moves better than he sings; he hasn’t got that musical comedy energy and bravado to belt out and put over a song, vocal quality be damned. Although he actually got his start onstage, he’s been too long in the movies. His acting is very small, film-like; he doesn’t command the stage. But he definitely plays humor and sarcasm. Unfortunately for him, he’s surrounded by talented triple-threats: actor-singer-dancers who really know their way around a musical stage.
Thematically, there are some old-fashioned sensibilities here, but the show is skewering a lot of the sixties mentality. Anyway, there will probably always be Good Old Boys and subservient secretaries and steamy, short-skirted, mindless sexpots. McAnuff knows just how to play to the period and goose it up at the same time. This parallels the production’s Retro feel and High-tech look.
In the pit, the sound is terrific, and the orchestrations are outstanding. The most exciting musical change is the grand finale, “Brotherhood of Man,” where the prim, vocally under-wraps Miss Jones, AKA Lillias White, suddenly steps forward and lets loose with a jazzy, gospel, scat-singing interlude that brings the house down. The World Wide Wicket Company will never be the same. And, with the technical innovations of this production, neither will musical theater.
MUSIC out… “Company Way”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.