Story: It’s 1961, and window washer J. Pierrepont Finch seems more absorbed in the book he’s reading than in cleaning the exterior of the World Wide Wicket building. He carries a self-help tome that describes in meticulous detail how an ambitious, enterprising young man (it is 1961) can rise to the top of the business world with nary an iota of talent.
Soon, Ponty is working at World Wide Wicket and maneuvering his way up the corporate ladder by following the sage advice of the author. Along the way he catches the eye of an earnest young secretary named Rosemary Pilkington, who sees something in the self-absorbed, devious fellow that she thinks will make good husband material.
Will Ponty impress the big boss, J.B. Biggley, and achieve the company stardom that the lazy, no-account nephew of Biggley’s wife believes should be his? And will Rosemary be able to communicate with the single-focused Ponty?
Highlights: Written by St. Louis native Shepherd Mead back in 1952, the satirical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying made the transformation to the stage in 1961, running on Broadway for more than 1,400 performances. It starred a youthful Robert Morse, who ironically turned up decades later in a more sober, serious look at American business of that era, particularly its advertising side, in TV’s acclaimed Mad Men.
In order for Business to work in the 21st century with its sexist, white-bread approach to the world, it needs to be played as broad, outrageous comedy. That’s exactly what director Michael Hamilton achieves with Stages’ lively, energetic, entertaining romp, led by the irrepressible Ben Nordstrom as the enterprising Ponty.
Other Info: Not to say that this production goes off without a hitch. Costume designers Jeff Shearer and Lou Bird insist on dressing the men in shirts of many hues rather than the drab, but customary, starched white of the era. They didn’t need to do that, and could have focused instead on the attire of the office women or even the golfing duds worn by Biggley prior to a big match, which they do with aplomb.
James Wolk’s scenic design is a marvel, as multiple and fanciful sets appear as Biggley’s office, the mail room, the elevator landing and the executive washroom, among others. The latter works especially well as a series of sinks and mirrors for the execs to prepare for an important meeting while Nordstrom smoothly performs one of the show’s enduring hits, I Believe in You, to himself, naturally.
One of the major stars in this production is the choreography of Stephen Bourneuf, which is filled to the brim with catchy, impressive moves designed to show off the versatility of the limber Nordstrom as well as the dazzling ensemble that supports him. Matthew McCarthy bathes those numbers in a beautiful array of lights that capture the buoyant spirit of this second Stages presentation (the first was in 2001).
Musical direction by Lisa Campbell Albert and orchestral design by Stuart Elmore are tight and handled with pinpoint accuracy, whether the troupe is making its spirited way through The Company Way or the rollicking Brotherhood of Man number in the lobby of the World Wide Wicket building.
Nordstrom was made to play the role of the ingratiating Ponty, whose over-riding ambition somehow can be overlooked for his boyish charm and engaging personality. He also has marvelous chemistry with the delightful Betsy DiLellio, who stands by her man every bit as well as Laura Petrie did in The Dick Van Dyke Show, without sacrificing her own charisma and graceful style.
Whit Reichert also seems perfect for the role of the blustery bigwig, Biggley, whom he portrayed in the earlier Stages rendition as well. Reichert is smooth as silk making his way through droll comic lines or dancing up a jig with Nordstrom as he leads them in a rousing rendition of Biggley's beloved college tune, Grand Old Ivy.
Joseph Medeiros hams it up humorously as Biggley’s sniveling nephew, Bud Frump, while Heather Ayers adopts a precious, down-low New Yawk accent as Biggley’s vapid mistress, Hedy LaRue. There’s also splendid work by Johmaalya Adelekan as Biggley’s iron-clad secretary, Miss Jones, who falls under the spell of the complimentary and conniving Ponty, standing out on the all-stops-out Brotherhood of Man number.
George Spelvin adds just the right touch of whimsy as the narrator who is the voice of the self-help book, and Steve Isom lends his sure comic touch to proceedings as the HR chief, Bert Bratt.
Claire Neumann is the epitome of experience and resignation as Smitty, head of the secretarial pool, while Bill Bateman shines in two roles, as the mousy mailroom chief Twimble and as the hard-charging chairman of the board who deals with a wacky scheme concocted by Ponty in the latter’s attempt at advertising.
The book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert still works well if played in that broad, time-warp style that Hamilton accentuates in this presentation, while the music and lyrics by Frank Loesser truly are the work of a top-notch Broadway composer.
Kick back and enjoy yourself watching this vivacious, mirthful engagement. But, remember, leave the smoking and drinking to the characters on stage.
Musical: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Company: Stages St. Louis
Venue: Reim Theatre, Kirkwood Civic Center, 111 South Geyer Road
Dates: Through August 17
Tickets: $20-$57; contact 821-2407 or stagesstlouis.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak