I’m not madly in love with the new production of the Frank Loesser–Abe Burrows musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Hirschfeld Theatre), but that’s OK, because even in musicals, mad love and satire don’t really mix. And much of How to Succeed’s satire, like much of its pure fun, remains surprisingly fresh.
Rob Ashford’s new staging pushes, aggressively and sometimes coarsely, to give this sweetly sardonic 1961 show a 21st-century makeover, blitzing once-intimate numbers with troops of dancers, splashing the multi-level stage with people and projections, heavily underscoring the comic bits with sight-gag costumes (those hats for the “Paris Original” number must surely have been designed by Danny Kaye’s Anatole of Paris) and exaggerated gestures (Ashford really kills the final window-washer gag).
These frenetic innovations work only minimal harm, however, for three reasons. First, Ashford’s firm grasp of the show’s overall sense speeds the story along, as we watch its butter-wouldn’t-melt hero connive his shameless way from job applicant to chairman of the board in the insta-flashes of Burrows’s tersely funny book. Second, Ashford’s choreography, even in excess, has a bouncy zest that keeps the show constantly airborne. Some may feel he tries too hard to differentiate his dances from Bob Fosse’s fondly remembered originals: “Coffee Break” now centers on one guy hoarding the machine’s last cupful; “Cinderella Darling” (deleted in the 1995 Matthew Broderick revival and gratifyingly restored here) has become a menacing clatter of tap shoes.
But Ashford hits a droll peak of frenzy with the manic football ballet he has shoehorned into “Grand Old Ivy,” formerly an intimate number for the show’s two leads, mention of whom brings up point three: Before Broadway musicals began equating unpleasantness with meaningful drama, their major characters had to be appealing. How to Succeed boasts three likeable leading actors, none an exact fit for the role, but all endearing. Rose Hemingway, as the secretary who sets her cap for the hero, is sweet even when she bangs out her top notes; John Larroquette, as the gullible CEO, may blither his dialogue but twinkles adorably on his takes and punch lines. As for Daniel Radcliffe, the show’s reason for existing, he may not be a born musical-show star—he “plays front” with distinctly British reserve—but he’s a real stage presence, with real acting skills, an engaging personality, and an agile willingness to go through outrageous acrobatic stunts. He’s hired.