“How to Succeed in Business” Charms at the Kennedy Center

By Morgan Politzer

Full of 1960s charm and wildly satirical musical numbers, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” is a brilliantly executed, high-energy and catchy production. A mix of fresh faces and seasoned theater veterans came together to create this perfectly over-the-top, toe-tapping musical.

Directed by Marc Bruni, the musical is based on Shepherd Mead‘s satirical 1952 book of the same name. The self-help book was inspired by Mead’s experience in the business world as he worked his way up the corporate ladder after getting his start in the mail room at a Manhattan advertising agency.

The musical tells the story of J. Pierrepont Finch (Skylar Astin) as he follows the book’s advice for succeeding the business world. He applies for a job at the World Wide Wicket Company, where he schmoozes and flatters his way through the ranks, eventually landing a top executive position.

With his sharp suit and even sharper wit, Finch not only captures the attention of the company’s leaders and its gullible president, J.B. Biggley (John Michael Higgins), but the heart of Rosemary Pilkington (Betsy Wolfe), a secretary at the World Wide Wicket Company, as well. She is instantly smitten with Finch, and daydreams about being “Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm” once they are married.

As Rosemary yearns for Finch and their inevitable happily ever after, Wolfe sings with the depth and glamor of an old Hollywood movie star as her bold soprano fills the theater. Her impeccable flirting and successful husband-nabbing techniques are perfectly paired with her down-to-earth and lovable charm.

Astin stars in the role of Finch, and manages to make a stereotypical, hateful, butt-kissing office jerk into an impish and lovable character. With Astin’s dreamy voice and “that upturned chin and that grin of impetuous youth,” it is easy to believe in him and his ambitions for the company. His subtle humor and snappy quirkiness compliment Michael Urie’s more overtly funny and gawky performance of Bud Frump, Biggley’s whiny nephew who immediately views Finch as a rival.

Behind every good business man at the World Wide Wicket Company is a faithful secretary, until the arrival of Hedy LaRue (Becki Newton), Biggley’s sexy but dim-witted mistress. The men of the company are thrown into chaos at her arrival and trip over themselves in an attempt to hire her as their secretary. This lustful desire prompts the adorable and important musical number “A Secretary Is Not A Toy,” in which the women of the company condemn the harassment they are subject to in the world of men.

While the number is lighthearted and full of clever choreography from Denis Jones, it highlights the important issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. Originally written in the 1960s and echoing themes of the Women’s Rights Movement, the musical number can be put in a modern context and applied to the #MeToo movement that has swept the country.

As the plot develops, so too does the strength of the women as they come together in the patriarchal corporate world of the 1960s. Nova Y. Payton gets a shining vocal moment as Biggley’s otherwise stern and stoic secretary Miss Jones in the musical number “Brotherhood of Man.”

While technically classified as a semi-staged concert experience, the production cleverly fills the theater, thanks to scenic and light designers Scott Pask and Peter Kaczorowski. The production is part of The Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage series.

Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Teresa Wood.

Morgan Politzer is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at morgan.politzer@gmail.com.

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