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NEW YORK — Rob Ashford clearly has a fascination for mid-20th century American office life, which was the satirical canvas for his Broadway directing debut, Promises, Promises, and his follow-up, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. But the more penetrating naturalistic gaze of Mad Men has so redefined that landscape that these shows now seem doomed to quaintness.
Of course, quaint can be charming and agreeable, which is generally where this medium-wattage 50th anniversary revival lands. Charming and agreeable are adjectives that also apply to the performer around whom it was packaged, Daniel Radcliffe. The Harry Potter star works way harder in his musical-theater debut than his crafty character, J. Pierrepont Finch, who shimmies up the corporate ladder with minimal effort.
The show is a diabolical take on the American dream realized via pure cunning and calculation. In the witty book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert (based on Shepherd Mead‘s novel), Finch’s meteoric rise takes him in record time from window-washer to mailroom clerk to junior executive to VP of advertising, and finally, to chairman of the board. He hurdles over and eliminates rivals along the way, neglecting his steno-pool sweetheart Rosemary (Rose Hemingway) to serve his ambition.
Finch is a conniving antihero, so he needs to keep the audience on his side. On that count, the still-boyish Radcliffe’s butter-wouldn’t-melt smile and ingratiating manner fit the bill nicely.
The role of Finch was originated in the 1961 Broadway premiere and 1967 movie by Robert Morse, whose casting as a senior ad agency partner in Mad Men is one of that show’s more inspired in-jokes. Unlike Morse, or Matthew Broderick in the 1995 revival, Radcliffe’s take on Finch is not the usual mischievous comedic spin. Instead he projects cherubic innocence, which makes a wry contrast with Finch’s underhand behavior.
Looking to expand his range as the Harry Potter franchise wraps up, Radcliffe deserves credit for setting himself new challenges. This role calls for an entirely different skill set from the febrile intensity he brought to his last Broadway assignment, as the psychotically disturbed stable boy in Equus. His voice is a little thin, but he does a capable job on Frank Loesser‘s songs, and while Ashford mostly entrusts the heavy lifting to the ensemble, Radcliffe more than holds his own in the boisterous dance numbers.
Appealing as he is, however, the actor doesn’t quite pop as a musical-theater performer. The same goes for pretty newcomer Hemingway, who sings sweetly but is more generic than captivating. Christopher J. Hanke makes a colorless nemesis of Finch’s bumbling rival, Bud Frump, a role originated by that most arch of comedians, Charles Nelson Reilly. And Anderson Cooper‘s flat pre-recorded voice-overs of the step-by-step career guidance in Finch’s how-to book also don’t help.
In his Broadway debut, TV veteran John Larroquette is no great singer. But he nails his laughs with sharp timing and eccentric line readings as J.B. Biggley, the World-Wide Wicket Company boss duped by Finch. Their duet on the college anthem “Grand Old Ivy” is one of the first act’s more rousing numbers, cementing the central dynamic of the crusty tycoon played for a fool by the shifty young upstart. As Biggley’s bit of fluff, Hedy La Rue, Tammy Blanchard also supplies fresh angles on a classic tart with a heart. In smaller roles, Rob Bartlett, Ellen Harvey and Michael Park make sharp impressions.
While the production is overdesigned,Catherine Zuber‘s stylish costumes and Howell Binkley‘s pastel lighting give the show a vibrant palette. But Derek McLane‘smodular set of hexagonal pods falls back on the same wallpaper-patterned design vernacular seen recently in Bye Bye Birdie and Promises, Promises, making this a tired retro trend.
Loesser’s lyrics still amuse and the book brims with sly humor, but the show’s satirical punch has become diluted over time, particularly under Ashford’s fussy direction. The musical numbers too rarely catch fire, despite the hard-sell athleticism of his choreography. There’s a nagging tendency to do too much, with even some of the more intimate songs treated as all-out production numbers. The effect is to somewhat smother the comedy.
Only in the evangelical “Brotherhood of Man,” 2½ hours into the show, does it joyfully ignite, and Radcliffe appears to be having a blast leading the dancers as Finch weasels his way out of disaster to come out on top.
Venue: Al Hirschfeld Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, John Larroquette, Rose Hemingway, Tammy Blanchard, Christopher J. Hanke, Rob Bartlett, Mary Faber, Ellen Harvey, Michael Park, Anderson Cooper
Music and lyrics: Frank Loesser
Book: Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, Willie Gilbert, based on the book by Shepherd Mead
Director-choreographer: Rob Ashford
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Jon Weston
Music director/arrangements: David Chase
Orchestrations: Doug Besterman
Executive producer: Beth Williams
Presented by Broadway Across America, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Joseph Smith, Michael McCabe, Candy Spelling, Takonkiet Viravan/Scenario Thailand, Hilary A. Williams, Jen Namoff/Fakston Productions, To Left Feet Productions/Power Arts, Hop Theatricals/Paul Chau/Daniel Frishwasser/Michael Jackowitz, Michael Speyer – Bernie Abrams/Jacki Barlia Florin – Adam Blanshay/Arlene Scanlan/TBS Service
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival