Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING at Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT)
Through June 12th
Simply said, Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s (CRT) How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a vibrant, energetic gem of musical theatre. And like the title suggests, there is an effortlessness to it – which is evident in the superb performances by CRT’s talented cast under the guiding hand of director (and CRT’s artistic director) Vincent J. Cardinal. With book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, and music & lyrics by Frank Loesser (and original book by Shepherd Mead) this 1961 Tony Award-winning, classic romp provides a plethora of sidesplittingly funny moments throughout its bounty of divine song-and-dance numbers. The hard work and dedication put forth by the entire cast and crew came across as if they didn’t even have to try at all!
At the Storrs campus of the University of Connecticut, CRT is the professional producing arm of the Department of Dramatic Arts. Their unique mission (there only are about 40 similar programs across the country) is to bring together Equity professionals with the school’s most advanced students. As the first production of the Nutmeg Summer Series 2016, How to Succeed… combines the talents of headliners Fred Grandy (maybe best known for The Love Boat and The Mindy Project, as well as having been a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the state of Iowa) as J.B. Biggley; Riley Costello (a young rising star who already has appeared in three Broadway shows and who was recently nominated for Outstanding Actor in a Musical by the Connecticut Critics Circle for his role in CRT’s Peter Pan) as J. Pierrepont Finch; John Bixler (who boasts a long list of theatre credits) as Bert Bratt; Steven Hayes (an award-winning comedian, actor, and writer and host of his YouTube show Steve Hayes: Tired Old Queen at the Movies) as Twimble/Womper; Sarah Schenkkan (who has an impressive resume including the 1st National Tour of Wicked) as Rosemary Pilkington; Ariana Shore (Broadway’s The Performers and numerous Off-Broadway, TV, and film credits) as Hedy LaRue; and Tina Fabrique (who has countless Broadway/Tour/NYC credits including Ragtime, South Pacific, and The Wiz, as well as numerous TV and vocal credits) as Miss Jones.
For anyone not familiar with the show, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a satirical look at big business and the idea that while we may think that ascending through the ranks is based upon education, merit, and hard work, that all just may be an illusion. Take the irrepressible J. Pierrepont Finch, the play’s protagonist who goes from window washer to Chairman of the Board in the blink of an eye, all thanks to the titular how-to-book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He follows the “wise,” guiding words (piped in as a voice over) to the letter – today this manual likely would be called How to Succeed in Business for Dummies — and finds himself precisely where he wants to be (much to the dismay of every other wannabe exec at the company). He’s charming, charismatic, crafty, and full of both street smarts and himself. Perfectly cast, Riley Costello is personality-plus with something of a trademark Cheshire Cat grin and a brilliantly mischievous gleam in his eye. He is sure to impress as he sings, dances, acts, and has you doubled over with laughter all in the same moment.
Fred Grandy is fabulous as J. B. Biggley, the President of World Wide Wickets (WWW). The character is something of a buffoon with plenty of secrets hidden under his stuffed-shirt, all-business exterior. Grandy has wonderful comedic timing and leads the cast with a sure hand and what only can be construed as having been a tremendous amount of fun. Tina Fabrique as Biggley’s loyal, and alternatingly tough and soft assistant is as terrific in her acting as she is in her scatting (a force, I mean voice to be reckoned with).
Sarach Schenkkan is lovely in more ways than one – her Rosemary is endearing, playful yet strong, with a phenomenal voice and the face of an angel. You truly believe that she has fallen for Finch and would do anything to support him. Ariana Shore as Hedy LaRue is the true Va-Va to the Voom. She is the classic buxom, bubble-headed vixen, and she’ll have you spitting out your drink and choking on your snacks every time she takes the stage (good thing I’d finished mine). Shore’s LaRue really knows how to work the men of WWW and the entire audience.
John Bixler is terrific as the stuffy Bert Bratt who knows how to “Yes, Sir” the boss better than any Bobble Head doll on the market. And Steven Hayes as both Twimble, the head of the mailroom, and Womper, Finch’s predecessor as the Chairman of the Board, is comical and spot-on (as well as quite the song and dance man).
Some of the funniest moments, I must say, go to Robert Fritz as Bud Frump, the arrogant, lazy, sniveling, plotting nephew of Biggley and attempted foil to Finch. Fritz is absolutely incredible as he embodies this total caricature of a character. With just the right amount of exaggeration and physical comedy (makes me think of the outtakes from Liar Liar when Swoosie Kurtz called Jim Carrey an “overactor”) he all but steals a number of scenes.
Adria Swan is an exceptional Smitty; Chester Martin as Gatch (and Ensemble) is a charmer whose sleaziness catches up with him and earns him a trip out of WWW and off to Venezuela. The rest of the cast also is wonderful: Jacob Burns as Jenkins/Ensemble, Ty Taylor as Tackaberry/Ensemble, Madison Coppola as Miss Krumholtz/Ensemble, Ross Thompson as Mr. Davis/Ensemble, Dalton Bertolone as Ovington/Ensemble (does a great “chipmunk”!), and the rest of the Ensemble: Rebekah Morgan Berger, Brian Binion, Elizabeth Brady, Gerald Caesar, Pearl Matteson, Janayla Montes, and Alessandro Gian Viviano. One also cannot forget to mention Colin McEnroe as the Book Voice – who injected just the right touch of sarcasm.
How to Succeed… may have a retro look and feel, but the story cannot be taken too seriously and must be appreciated for the era in which it was created. It is not entirely dated, with the possible exception of “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” (Oh, to be loved by a man I respect/To bask in the glow of his perfectly understandable neglect./Oh, to belong in the aura of his frown–darling busy frown./Such heaven–wearing the wifely uniform/While he goes onward and upward./Happy to keep his dinner warm
Till he comes wearily home from down town.) and “A Secretary Is Not a Toy” (A secretary is not a thing/Wound by key, pulled by string./Her pad is to write in/And not spend the night in./If that’s what you plan to enjoy./No!!), two numbers which humorously push the envelope of gender roles and relationship equity. But most of us are “Happy to See Them for What They Are” – satirical and cheeky pokes at the traditional roles of men and women at work and in the home in the 1950s and early 60s.
The entire company was spot on, as was the crew. Vincent J. Cardinal, who will soon be departing CRT for a new position at the University of Michigan, is going out with a bang as this piece truly came together colorfully and dynamically. John Pike’s musical direction was the perfect enhancement as was sound design by Michael Vincent Skinner and lighting design by Michael Chybowski. Major kudos to Cassie Abate for choreography – and of course to the cast for pulling off the numbers so well. Tim Brown’s scenic design and Christina Lorraine Bullard’s costume design added effectively to the retro feel. Final shout outs to John W. Parmelee for technical direction, Pat McCorkle for casting, and Tom Kosis for stage managing.
You can be assured that any production staged by CRT is top notch and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is no exception. For a wonderful theatre experience and a chance to catch some seasoned stars in tandem with up-and-comers, check out How to Succeed… and the rest of the Nutmeg Series (watch for Peter and the Starcatcher and West Side Story)!
Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT)’s production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is really a study in How To Succeed in Theatre WITH Trying. CRT has all of the ingredients down pat. You take a core group of Equity professionals, stir in a veteran star of stage and screen, mix them with an award-winning play and sprinkle with young, enthusiastic students. CRT oversees the baking process with a brilliant, creative director at the helm and voila! You have a great, layered, theatrical cake that is sure to please those with the most difficult-to-please palettes.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a musical by Frank Loesser with book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, based on the original book by Shepherd Mead. It premiered on Broadway in 1961, won seven Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize in 1962 for Best Drama. The log line and plot is succinctly embodied in the play’s title and follows the meteoric rise of J. Pierrepont Finch from mailroom to head of the company. So CRT made an excellent choice here.
The core Equity actors were an incredible blend of show people who know what teamwork is and what it means to have an ensemble cast. The group includes Riley Costello, John Bixler, Steven Hayes, Sarah Schenkkan, Ariana Shore, and Tina Fabrique. Let’s take each of them seriatim. Riley Costello is more than a triple threat. He sings, dances and acts. But he also has great comedic timing. Nominated for a Connecticut Critics Circle Award for CRT’s Peter Pan, he does a tap dance number with the ensemble and Tina Fabrique that is show stopping! I was reminded of Michael J. Fox’s performance in Herbert Ross’ film, Secret of My Success which was a modern clone of How to Succeed…. John Bixler plays to perfection the corporate “yes” man, Bert Bratt. Veteran comedy actor and singer is wonderful both as Twimble the singing mailroom boss and as Womper, Chairman of the company. Sarah Schenkkan makes an excellent complement to Riley, singing, dancing and acting her way to the alternate plot of How To Succeed… which is How To Marry an Executive Without Really Trying. And talk about perfect casting. Ariana Shore’s previous experience as an on-camera shuckster for the Home Shopping Network (not to mention her string of Broadway and film credits) ensures selling the audience on the deliciously evil – well maybe just misguided – Hedy LaRue. She successfully (there’s that word again) seduces all of the male characters in the play as well as the audience. Tina Fabrique as Miss Jones, J.B. Biggley’s secretary, brings her acting, comedic and even scat singing chops to bear on the role.
The supporting cast also is marvelous. Robert Fritz as the bumbling, nerdy, inept Bud Frump is knock-down, drag-out hilarious. Chester Martin kills as the naive and shortsighted Gatch, one of Finch’s earliest victims who ends up in Venezuela. Dalton Bertolone as Ovington does a mean chipmunk piece that will have you doubled over. Adria Swan shines in the role of Smitty. And kudos to the rest of the cast. While it’s tough to list everyone individually, the students – most of them newcomers – should see their names in print as an acknowledgment of their fine work with the rest of the ensemble: Jacob Burns, Ty Taylor, Madison Coppola, Ross Thompson, Dalton Bertolone, Rebekah Morgan Berger, Brian Binion, Elizabeth Brady, Gerald Caesar, Pearl Matteson, Janayla Montes, Alessandro Gian Viviano and, last but not least, Colin McEnroe as the Book Voice.
The next major ingredient is star power. The world knows Fred Grandy from the iconic TV show The Love Boat and, more recently, The Mindy Project. But what many people may not know is that Fred also was a four-term Congressman, a CEO of a major corporation, and holds an MFA degree. (See Pillow Talking’s Interview with Fred.) He brings this wealth of experience to the role of J.B. Biggley. As fate would have it, in 1981 Fred played Finch to Don Ameche’s Biggley in the Kenley Player’s Production. Fred proves that he still has what it takes in terms of stage acting and comedic flare, slipping into the role of Biggley like one slipping into a well-worn glove; one that is comfortable and fits perfectly. He is funny, engaging and a pure delight to watch.
The directorial ingredient was satisfied in full by Vincent J. Cardinal, CRT’s Artistic Director and Director of this production. Vincent has more legitimate credits than many politician’s campaign funds. He not only assembled a great cast, but the staging and pacing are spot on. Indeed, it never feels that there’s a second of down time; you get the impression of people going to and from work at a brisk pace throughout the play. I was reminded of the opening of the films Joe Versus the Volcano and The Bonfire of the Vanities with the long Steadicam shot following Bruce Willis. The jokes, which are far from dated, also come fast and furious or, as the late, great Muhammed Ali used to say, ‘float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”
Hats off to choreographer Cassie Abate, scenic designer Tim Brown, music director John Pike and costume designer, Christina Lorraine Bullard who, with others too numerous to mention, prove that any successful production is a collaborative endeavor.
The theme of this review is success (hey, critics can be creative, too). CRT has produced yet another successful production.