Despite being one of only nine musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has fallen by the wayside in London. With a number of modest fringe productions over the past few years, it has yet to be revived in the West End. Rob Ashford’s spirited and generally well-received Daniel Radcliffe-led production on Broadway back in 2011 made the most of the material, which detractors will label as ‘dated’ at best and ‘misogynistic’ at worst, but it’s a piece that requires an extremely careful hand in order to balance the tone and satire.
Given the piece’s inherent misgivings, it’s an attractive proposal for those looking for a quick-paced, high-energy musical comedy that satirizes both the genre and the early 1960s world of corporate business. Since the rise of 'Mad Men' the office-based sexual politics of New York in that era have been well documented and discussed, but whilst Matthew Weiner made his characters well rounded and infinitely developed, Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert provide two dimensional cut outs that never feel appropriately weighty.
Director Benji Sperring struggles to make his mark on the piece, obviously nervous with what tone to definitively land on. Lines such as “oh the be loved by a man I respect / to bask in the glow of his perfectly understandable neglect” in Rosemary, the romantic lead’s ‘I Want’ song are approached with a mix of earnestness and knowing; one second he has the delectably likeable Hannah Grover seductively sucking her pencil and the next minute she recoils with a nervous anxiousness. Whilst the production suggests a cartoonish ignorance it lack cohesion and doesn’t effectively send-up the era or present it as a product of its time, ultimately falling between two stools.
The book and the jokes are dated, from references to diet-drink Metrecal to television programmes no one remembers and these clunk along searching for laughs. The frustrations in presenting ‘golden age’ musicals mean that changes to the book and script are tightly protected (often guarded, as this excellent piece presents, by the widows of estates who aren’t always accepting of change) and there’s little contemporary directors can do but ride these out.
There’s a modesty to this production that’s quaintly disappointing. Working against the Victorian grandeur of the stunning Wilton’s Music Hall it feels confined and creaky. Mike Lee’s design makes the best of the fading proscenium, placing Ben Ferguson’s fine-sounding band above the action, yet down on the ground struggles with creaky doors, elevators that don’t quite meet and ever-moving clunky furniture that never embraces a concept and feels overly fussy. The lighting is unanimously patchy – spotlights go rogue and upstage the cast and they’re over used in production numbers with gaudy flashing colours and spinning effects that add to the collective amateur feel.
What limits the production overall is its unnecessarily anachronistic finish. Plastic Ikea furniture mixes with neon shoes that attempt to give each character an individual colour but ends up making them look like a parade of Easter eggs, enhanced by some dreadful wigs and non-period costumes. The company work hard to keep all the balls up in the air but mistake energy for broad, pantomime style acting that lacks both nuance and class. Musical numbers are too sparse to ever lift off – Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography is unimaginatively lacking and fails to lift would-be showstoppers such as “Coffee Break” and “Paris Original”. One of the score’s most memorable hits “A Secretary is Not a Toy” is performed in split-dress costume with ensemble awkwardly playing both genders in half a dress and half a suit - the weakest in a long line of underwhelming moments.
Away from the ensemble the lead cast are given chance to shine. Marc Pickering shoulders most of the weight and succeeds in this respect at maintaining a rapport with the audience and keeping the piece on its feet. He’s sprightly, cheeky and a joy to watch, sporting a cracking voice and astute comic timing. Hannah Grover is equally talented but feels misdirected, leaving Geri Allen’s Smitty to take the comic spotlight as dutiful go-between Smitty. I enjoyed the relationship between corporate big-wig JB Biggley and his sexy bit on the side Hedy La Rue more than usual thanks to some excellent work by Andrew C Wadswroth and Lizzii Hills, but they feel collectively under-supported by a production that too frequently bats above its weight.
Far from a perfect musical I would argue that there is much to admire, respect and even love in How to Succeed… and whilst it feels like a million miles away from the most recent Pulitzer Prize winning musical Hamilton its importance in the canon and wider American culture should not be forgotten. As we’ve collectively witnessed the most under-qualified President in history rise to the top on a wing and a prayer alongside his own disgusting misogyny, the themes of the show should (sadly) still resonate. Musical comedy shouldn’t have to work this hard and despite some strong leading turns and sterling work from Mr Pickering, this production doesn't quite succeed as well it might.