July 26--With Ben Nordstrom as a cunning young man determined to rise at World Wide Wicket and Whit Reichert as his bumbling boss, Stages St. Louis cast "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" to a tee.
Not only do the two actors sparkle in their roles, they're both long-time favorites with Stages' audiences. (In fact, Reichert played the same part when Stages presented "How to Succeed," in 2001.) Stages doesn't have an official ensemble, but their presence gives this production that same kind of cozy, insider feeling. Michael Hamilton's crisp direction keeps the comedy sharp.
Based on a book by Shepherd Mead that Frank Loesser turned into a musical, "How to Succeed" satirizes corporate culture. A window-washer -- that's Nordstrom, playing canny J. Pierrepont Finch -- climbs step by rapid step up the ladder, thanks to a "how-to" book of instructions and the devoted, if inexplicable, love of a secretary named Rosemary (Betsy DiLellio, possessed of an exceptionally clear voice).
Familiar today through "Mad Men," this is a world in which executives need to be reminded that "A Secretary Is Not a Toy" but a marriage-minded steno may dream of a suburban home where she'd be "Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm." The sexual politics may seem antique, but remember -- they also seemed pretty funny when this show won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1962.
Scenic designer James Wolk and lighting designer Matthew McCarthy team up to create a witty look for this period effort, all long lines and multicolored lights that shine through translucent panels. Truth is, the design is not a satire -- it's a fair representation of midcentury modern at its sleek apogee.
But the performances make up for that: they're comic through and through. Nordstrom is particularly wonderful in a spoof ballet, leaping about to mess up the office so it looks as if he's been working hard. Choreographer Stephen Bourneuf is also behind the lively "school spirit" dance that Nordstrom and Reichert perform in tribute to Old Ivy, the school the boss attended and that Ponty pretends to have gone to.
And the ensemble teams up for the great zombie dance "Coffee Break," lead by Joseph Medeiros as the boss' nerdy nephew Bud Frump. Medeiros really is a wonderful dancer (remember him in "The Secret Garden"?) but here, stiff-armed and moaning, he shows a whole new side of his work. Even the big love song for DiLellio and Nordstrom, "Rosemary," has its built-in joke (it's based on a hallucination).
Heather Ayers as the boss' luscious girlfriend, Claire Neumann as a shrewd secretary, and Bill Bateman as a lowly employee devoted to "The Company Way" all come through with bright comedic turns. Johmaalya Adelekan brings a jazzy sizzle to "Brotherhood of Man," the best-known number in the show.
Adelekan, Nordstrom and the male ensemble perform it with such full-hearted vigor, you can almost forget that Finch launched the song to distract the others from what's really going on. Count on Loesser and the script's writers (Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert) to add a tart final scene just to make sure we remember.
Judith Newmark is the Post-Dispatch theater critic. Follow her on Twitter @judithnewmark.
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