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Reprise Theatre Company sets off retro explosions using music and art to capture a feel of what the excitement was like when the light-hearted Burrows & Loesser parody of the corporate world opened on Broadway in October 1961.
With a delightful, minimalist set, and a cast and crew willing to take any risk to avoid the least pretense to social criticism, the relevance of this production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” lies in its look, specifically 2010 interpretations of slimwear suits for the guys and frumpy, Stepford-wife frocks for the dolls.
Director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge leads with Ed Asner, always an imprimatur of quality and class, as the voice of the pocketbook of self-help business advice that J. Pierrepont Finch (Josh Grisetti) relies on throughout the show.
Then we get John O’Hurley, who plays the World Wide Wicket boss with a ferociously large, mobile and delicious appetite for mirth. When O’Hurley saucily shakes his tush at the end of a dance line in the finale, it signifies to perfection that the evening has been an absurdist romp.
It might have fazed a lesser newest-Broadway-star, but Grisetti leaps onto the stage with such outrageous elan — as if he could play Peter Pan without the trapeze — that he immediately takes charge of the proceedings and with no complaints.
Grisetti sizes up the situation, then goes ahead with Finch’s trademark commitment to positive thinking that Dale Carnegie would have loved. This “Ponty” leads with his nose and his smile as well as his chin, has amperes of athleticism to spare and charms his superiors with equal parts grace and chatter. Although he lacks the goofy appeal of such Broadway predecessors as Robert Morse and Matthew Broderick, Grisetti creates an authentic, iconic persona for the new century’s new decade.
The show’s casting is sublime. Simon Helberg (“The Big Bang Theory”) brings the house down with his snarling, Heep-ish, nepophiliac loser of a Bud Frump. Ray Wills as a corporate sycophant has a thpitting routine that leaves no cast member undoused and no member of the audience untickled. E.E. Bell, Larry Raben and Michael Kostroff contribute solid work that rises to stealing the show when they are called on for a solo bit or two. Vicki Lewis as the wise-cracking Smitty and Ruth Williamson as the bowling secretary Miss Jones go way over the top with their outlandishly cartoonish caricatures, which is just where their two characters belong.
But casting falls down in the female leads department. Nicole Parker’s Rosemary Pilkington lacks the appealing spunk to match Grisetti, and Melissa Fahn’s Hedy LaRue falls short on sex appeal despite the stack of pillows she carries around on her chest. Fahn, however, scores heavily with dialgoue work that brilliantly reproduces and even improves on the raspy chatter and charm of a latter-day Judy Holliday.
The Freud Playhouse sound system, always a cause of concern, plays its usual inconstant role, on opening night waiting until it really counted to sabotage the actors.
Venue: Freud Playhouse, Westwood (Through May 23)
Cast: Josh Grisetti, Simon Helberg, Vicki Lewis, John O’Hurley, Nicole Parker, Melissa Fahn, Ray Wills
Book: Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert
Music-lyrics: Frank Loesser
Director-choreographer: Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Music director: Darryl Archibald
Scenic designer: Bradley Kaye
Costume designer: Kate Bergh
Lighting designer: Elizabeth Harper
Sound designer: Phil G. Allen
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