By Kay Kipling
In 1961, when it first hit Broadway, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was a blithe but nevertheless sharp musical comedy about one young man’s climb up the corporate ladder from window washer to president—with a lot of entertaining rungs along the way. More than 50 years later, this Frank Loesser show (with book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert) is still fresh and funny, as evidenced in Venice Theatre’s current production.
The young man in this case is J. Pierrepont Finch, first glimpsed reading a book on how to succeed as he plans his ascent. Finch is ambitious, certainly, charming, surely, and focused on himself to the point that at first he hardly notices the young secretary who’s to become his love interest. But Finch, for all his calculating schemes, must remain likable to us, and he does, in the person of young Jason Ellis.
Ellis has performed well in other roles at community theaters around town, but Finch gives him the chance to really shine, whether it’s dancing with loose-limbed abandon (in several examples of director Brad Wages’ choreography, he’s leaping from tables, rolling off couches and skipping across the stage, all with a smile and without missing a beat), sucking up to the right people at work, or, eventually, catching on to the appeal of Rosemary (Sarah Cassidy, a bright and warm note here). His voice is not exceptional, but it carries him through famous tunes like Grand Old Ivy and I Believe in You, and with his agility and demeanor, Ellis is a winner.
He’s supported not only by Cassidy but by Laurie Colton as the wise-cracking Smitty; William Murphy as the boss’ weaselly nephew, Bud Frump; Timothy J. Fitzgerald as the boss himself, J.B. Biggley (gruff on the outside, even as he knits to calm his nerves); and Danae DeShazer as the boss’ secret squeeze, bombshell Hedy LaRue (DeShazer is perfect both physically and comedically). Under the direction of Wages (who also stepped in for another actor in two roles in the show on this particular evening), How to Succeed is always moving; he deploys his ensemble of secretaries and businessmen well on numbers including The Company Way and A Secretary Is Not a Toy, and, of course, on the show’s rousing finale, Brotherhood of Man. It all may be a bit broad at times, but not damagingly so.
The costumes by Nicholas Hartman are colorful for the ladies, more sober business attire for the men (except when Biggley dons a special sweater during the Old Ivy number), and the set by Donna Buckalter is minimal and efficient for such a busy show. My only wish would have been for an even larger, stronger orchestra than the one here under the music direction of Michelle Kasanofsky; the songs are so good they deserve a big sound.
How to Succeed continues through Dec. 2; for tickets call 488-1115 or go to venicestage.com.