sat 13/08/2022

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, RFH | reviews, news & interviews

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, RFH

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, RFH

Frank Loesser musical classic is charming, funny... and long

Heady indeed: Hannah Waddingham as Hedy LaRue and Jonathan Groff as Ponty in `How to Succeed ...' in concertall photos by Darren Bell

Frank Loesser seems to be known in Britain for one show and one show only, which seems a shame given that the composer-lyricist of Guys and Dolls has a CV that includes the ravishing The Most Happy Fella and his 1962 Pulitzer prize-winning How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which was last seen locally a decade ago at Chichester but remains unproduced in London since, well, whenever.

And by way of partial recompense, along came a one-off concert version of the show and what a glory it remains, its defining mixture of satire and sweetness pretty well unmatched by any musical since. 

That performed uncut it's a long piece as well (a full three hours, and this was without any choreographic interludes that would have pushed a full production toward the witching hour and beyond) mattered not a whit to a receptive audience happy to bask again in that score. Composer-lyricist Loesser's outpouring of song here includes at least a half-dozen musical theatre treasures that were gamely – and, in some cases, near-definingly – performed by an Anglo-American company that was at least more cohesive than the eclectic grab-bag of talent assembled for last month's Albert Hall run-through of Follies, a later Broadway touchstone also given the starry-concert treatment. (That one got two same-day performances.) 

In leading man terms, Jonathan Butterell's production can be seen as payback for Britain sending Daniel Radcliffe to New York to headline the 2011 Broadway revival of this same show, in which the Harry Potter star reinvented himself anew as an American song-and-dance man.

And here was New York stage regular Jonathan Groff (known more broadly from TV's Glee and Looking and pictured above) crossing the other direction to fulfill a long-standing ambition to play J Pierrepont Finch (misspelled in the cast list as Pierepont), the aspirational window cleaner who smiles his way to the top of New York's World Wide Wicket Company: the charm offensive practised by Ponty, as he is known, on his colleagues was mirrored by Groff's relationship with the audience in a vehicle that played far more to this performer's strengths than his sole West End credit in Deathtrap.

Vocally, it took the hugely likeable Groff a while to warm up in what in any case is an unforgiving space for musicals-in-concert. (At the start, I worried that Mike Dixon and his Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra might overwhelm the performer altogether.) And it might have been better had Groff crooned slightly less, saving any vocal embellishments for some other time and place. But he adjusted as he went along and in acting terms nailed the demands of a tricky character to get right, managing to be more casually cunning than the hyper-eager Radcliffe and less nerdy-creepy than Matthew Broderick, the last of whom inexplicably won a 1995 Tony for an earlier Broadway revival.

That an audience taking its own leaf from the title wanted Groff/Ponty to succeed was nowhere more evident than in the rush of affection that greeted his climactic first-act kiss. Here at last was our amorously reluctant hero locking lips with the ever-patient Rosemary, the wife-in-waiting whom Cynthia Erivo (pictured left) acted with infinitely touching reserve even if Loesser's score didn't entirely sit right on the register of a performer blessed with one of the most distinctive voices in town. (I've heard less pinched versions of "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm", Rosemary's spousal credo.) Ashley Robinson's Bud Frump – the boss's brazenly nepotistic nephew and Ponty's bespectacled nemesis – was better physically than vocally: a bendy figure of bile whose fall from grace counteracts Ponty's untrammeled ascent.

Several of the real glories were buried further down a cast list that also, puzzlingly, failed to credit Loesser's lyrics (some of the best ever-written). The wonderful Nicolas Colicos scored twice, both as the Wicket Company's personnel officer, Bratt, and, crucially, as the voice of the self-help manual of the same name as the show's title that Ponty consults on each step up the ladder of success. (The accompanying lightbulb moments here were especially endearing.) Amy Ellen Richardson's fellow secretary, Smitty, took blissfully dry command each time she stepped to the mic, while Hannah Waddingham's bodaciously dim Hedy LaRue was a supporting turn for the ages, the jury out as to which was better: her distinctive, pitch-perfect vocal honk or the comic timing late on with which the simple words "I do" brought down the house. Clarke Peters as Wicket head honcho JB Biggley may have been glued to his script but did land one of the book's best lines: "I can't stay home," reports this most henpecked of husbands. "I'm a married man."

Not that any musical theatre devotee would have thought of staying home given the rare opportunity to experience a London airing of this show. And when Groff not long before the interval turned toward the orchestra to conduct his own gleeful version of "Rosemary", one was ready not just to give this Ponty the vice-presidency of the firm but the keys to the city on the understanding that the performer return to our midst – and soon. 


Hannah Waddingham's bodaciously dim Hedy LaRue was a supporting turn for the ages


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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