Arts

How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying – The Al Hirschfield Theatre

Once again, Julia Armfield suffers for her art.

So before you say anything – no I did not buy a £500 ticket to New York purely for this reason. I didn’t.

I needed a holiday and New York seemed as good a place as any to go. Honestly.

Alright, so admittedly, the very fact that I even have to clarify this is probably a greater indication than any other that I’ve already written far too many articles about Darren Criss in the last six months and should consequently put my laptop aside right now and seek professional help and/or a cold shower, but whatever. I don’t care.

I don’t have to impress you people.

How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (or H2$, for people with word limits), first opened on Broadway in 1961 to widespread acclaim and a slew of Tonys, even picking up the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser (of Guys and Dolls fame), the show follows the satirical story of J. Pierrepont Finch, a young New York window cleaner who uses a self-help business manual to climb to the top of the World Wide Wicket Company, only to find that the business ladder can be about as stable as a window cleaner’s stepladder when pushed. The current 2011 revival originally starred Daniel Radcliffe as Finch, but as my friends and I blew into town on the third of January with our heads still buried in the metaphorical sick bags of New Year, it just so happened that that very weekend would mark the changeover from Radcliffe’s ten month run to a limited three week stint featuring Darren Criss (of Glee, A Very Potter Musical and my own private brain theatre) in the lead role. What’s a girl to do?

The show itself, it really must be stated, is a marvellously silly confection. Following Finch through his disingenuous and often downright sleazy ascent through the World Wide Wicket Company, the show’s unfailingly humorous and deeply ironical tone manages to keep you rooting for him throughout as a still-preferable hero to the pantomime of incompetence and idiocy that surrounds him. This revival (the first on Broadway since 1995) manages to retain this frothy sense of fun by steering clear of any awkward attempt at focusing its satirical sting on current affairs. Yes, the story is about business and finance and the idiocy often inherent within them and yes, now of all times is certainly a period rich in obvious parallels, but director Rob Ashford has wisely kept his production rooted firmly in the late 1950s, with any parallels the audience wishes to draw left to them to smirk over in private. The production is certainly the better for it, unburdened as it is by the sobering onus of its current day implications and allowed, instead, simply to revel in its own colourful silliness as a mischievous but good-natured satire that doesn’t strike too deep.

As a production, H2$ plays out with great style and visual campery, relying heavily on a Mad Men-esque aesthetic to compliment the signature blend of orchestral lushness and rockabilly undertones that characterise so many musicals of the 1950s and 60s. Ear worms somewhat abound in this show, with songs such as “Rosemary”, “How To Succeed” and “Been A Long Day” proving particularly hard to bash out of one’s head once you’ve heard them, and the chorus line are wittily electric in even the most throwaway of numbers. “Coffee Break” is a particular gem, taking place right after two big opening numbers and managing to keep up the frenzied energy needed to see the audience through any amount of establishing dialogue.

The company is universally excellent; Christopher Hanke giving the turn of the night as Bud Frump, Finch’s pathologically useless arch-nemesis, whilst the understudy we happened to catch as love interest Rosemary was as entertaining and secure as any lead I have ever seen. Beau Bridges, meanwhile (of “being Jeff Bridges’ brother” fame) puts in a fine performance as J. B. Biggley, the President of the company, whose Old Boy nepotism and benignly lecherous relationship with continually sozzled office bombshell Hedy La Rue (Tammy Blanchard; magnificent) are again treated with humour rather than revulsion in a musical that seeks to poke fun rather than to rip anyone to pieces.

Criss, meanwhile, is a revelation in a performance that even I had previously been tentatively preparing to make excuses for (Because that’s what love is, kids). He is not, it is true, anything in the way of a Michael Ball or a John Barrowman and was consequently mic-ed for the whole performance but this, to be honest, I had expected. What I had not expected was the sheer unbridled energy and detail he managed to bring to a role which, whilst admittedly funny, might have rung slightly hollow if played for laughs alone. Criss does a praise-worthy job of imbuing Finch with actual depth, approaching comparatively low-energy songs such as “I Believe In You” and “Rosemary” with believable emotion, whilst his portrayal of Finch’s ever-present sneaky side (faking having fallen asleep working all night in his office and giving many a smug glance to the audience whenever his plans become clear) is unfailingly funny. His voice, for one who has made a career singing Katy Perry songs better than Katy Perry (not hard, I will grant) is surprisingly strong and his range likewise, the only iffy moment occurring in the big final song, “Brotherhood of Men”, when his solo was admittedly rather dented by being clearly out of breath after a complicated dance routine (although his dancing, just by the by, is cheesily flawless). He is not, as I say, a Michael Ball or a John Barrowman, but neither is he a Martine McCutcheon, and for that we must all be grateful.

There are, of course, certain elements of the show that aren’t perfect. The feminist flag is hardly flown high by the swooning Rosemary and her secretarial counterparts and various songs such as “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” and “A Secretary Is Not A Toy” are problematic at best, However, this revival does attempt to treat these things with enough of a satirical side-eye to make them amusing, rather than depressing, and the staunchly period feel certainly helps.

In general, this is a show that absolutely delivers, as long as what you ordered was good fun and not too much in the way of heavy realism or Sondheim-esque melodrama. God knows Daniel Radcliffe gives me the feelings in his own deeply specialised and troubling way, but Criss, to me, is a gem of a leading man and one who would only improve and improve if only he were playing longer than his three week run. As it is, however, he is shortly to be replaced by Nick Jonas, the musical fugitive wanted for crimes against Marius, Les Miserables and my eardrums, and I can only thank God that I won’t be around to witness that.

As the more philosophical among us have been known to say: “There’s being Harry Potter, there’s being on Glee and there’s being a Jonas Brother. All men are created equal, but some are most definitely more equal than others.”

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