March 30, 2011

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” Tries Really Hard But isn’t As Successful as It Should Be

My husband K is crazy about Frank Loesser.  The movie version of the composer’s Pulitzer Prize–winning final work, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, sat in our Tivo queue for years so that K could watch a few scenes whenever he wanted a quick pick-me-up.

But K passed on the chance to see the new revival of the show that opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Sunday night.  He simply couldn’t—wouldn’t—imagine anyone besides Robert Morse in the role of the musical’s sly get-ahead guy J. Pierrepont Finch, who finagles his way from humble window washer to the chairman of the board.

And, judging from the reviews that have come out over the past couple of days, that’s the way a lot of people feel.

I get it. There are some performances so iconic, so indelible that it seems almost like sacrilege for anyone else to even attempt the role. (Click here to read Morse and Donna McKechnie’s reminiscences about the 1961 production). But time does pass.  At least some memories fade.  A new generation of theatergoers comes along looking for its own icons. 

Which is why I think people should give Daniel Radcliffe a break.  And, with the notable exception of Ben Brantley in the New York Times, most critics have tried to do that. Now, I’m crawling up on that bandwagon too. 

It’s hard to say mean things about Radcliffe. As has to be obvious to everyone who has been even partially sentient during the past decade, Radcliffe knows how to be successful. Over the past 10 years, he has:

•played the eponymous boy wizard in the Harry Potter series, which will finally end this summer

•managed to go through puberty and into young adulthood without a whiff of scandal

•given scores of interviews in which he routinely comes off as smart, witty and immensely likeable (click here to read an interview he did for Out Magazine)

•earned good notices for his Broadway debut as the troubled stable boy in Equus (click here to see my review)

•won one of this year’s GLADD Awards for the public service announcement he did reassuring gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender kids that it’s perfectly fine to be who they are (click here to see the video)

Clearly, the lad (he’s only 21) could just rest on his laurels, good will and the piles of money he made from the Harry Potter movies. Instead, he’s jumped feet first into the role of Finch. I say “feet first” because Radcliffe has gone on record as saying how hard it’s been for him to learn to dance. But he more than holds his own with the dance pros onstage.

Director and choreographer Rob Ashford hasn’t made it easy on him either.  The dances are intense workouts particularly the rousing 11 o’clock gospel-like number, “Brotherhood of Man.”  But they reminded me of the ones in last season's revival of Promises, Promises, which Ashford also directed, and of the ones in the ill-fated 9 to 5, which he didn’t.  How great it would be to see some fresh notions about how dancers portraying mid-century businessmen and their secretaries might move. 

Despite the high-aerobic dance numbers (Radcliffe is, at times, lifted, flipped and hurled through the air) the performance my niece Jennifer and I saw lacked energy—it ambled along when it should have been strutting. 

The cast also struck me as uneven. As fond as I am of Radcliffe and as much as I admire how hard he's clearly working, his Finch seems too amiable, going along to get along instead of going along only until he can figure out a way to come out on top. And while Radcliffe's singing is pleasant it lacks oomph.

Similarly, both TV funnyman John Larroquette as the head of the company and newcomer Rose Hemingway as the secretary whose ambition is to marry Finch seemed blander than they should have been. In fact, the one person who really popped was Christopher J. Hanke, who plays Finch's foil. Hanke is the only real stage vet among the four main characters and clearly feels the most comfortable there.

But the audience seemed happy with them all.  Particularly the ticket holders under 30.  For them, Robert Morse is just the old guy on TV’s “Mad Men.”  Like my niece (a diehard Harry Potter fan) they had come to see Radcliffe and they cheered him every chance they got. And, in the end, it's their continued support that's going to determine how truly successful this revival will be.

No comments: