In Rob Ashford’s inspired revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, with music by Frank Loesser), we watch with delight as J. Pierpont Finch (Daniel Radcliffe) rises by cunning degrees from window washer to chairman of the board. Every nanosecond of this well-cast production is eloquent with craft and wit. But the laurels of the evening go to Radcliffe and the towering John Larroquette, as the boss, J. B. Biggley. Radcliffe’s youthful brightness is a perfect foil for Larroquette’s dopey severity. Radcliffe is having the time of his life; you feel his joy.
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Nevertheless, Radcliffe gives a pretty satisfying performance, showing off earnest acting skills, a passable singing voice and some surprisingly confident dance moves. But perhaps most importantly, he is so cute and charming that the audience is sure to cheer him on.
In fact, it's hard to unravel where Finch ends and Radcliffe begins, so thoroughly do the two seem to be entwined in this triumphant performance. On the surface, the British actor - with his squat, compact body and somewhat pasty complexion - seems an unlikely leading man. Though he has a stronger singing voice than Broderick and a limber, go-for-it approach to director Rob Ashford's exhaustingly acrobatic choreography, he's not a natural, effortless triple threat. But like Finch, he seems to be tapping into an almost bottomless reserve of willpower and determination to claim his place in the spotlight of a big-budget Broadway musical. Your eyes keep being drawn to him, even if he always lets you see him sweat.
What Radcliffe and Ashford pull off in this surprisingly succulent production is a fairly exhilarating demonstration of how a well-run musical, like a well-run company, adapts itself to the peculiar talents of its personnel, and not the other way around. With Ashford's flair, Radcliffe's dogged discipline and great good humor, and a deep bench of performing talent, How to Succeed-written as a poke at at the gray-flannel innards of a mid-century business behemoth-moves with the fleet feet and bright-eyed buoyancy of a startup. Its satiric DNA may be rooted in the Sterling Cooper era, but the energy here is present-tense, urgent and undeniable.
If you had any doubts about Harry Potter's wizardly powers before, you'll become a believer now. Seeing young Daniel Radcliffe's poised and skillful performance in this very challenging role, I'm wondering if the famed movie actor may have found his true calling.
Radcliffe, the 21-year-old Brit who spent half his life as Harry Potter before starring in "Equus" at the West End and on Broadway, has undergone a crash course in singing, dancing and mugging. Turns out he is proficient at the first, surprisingly adept at the second and especially good at the third.
The professionals are back. Well into one of the dimmest Broadway seasons in recent memory, Rob Ashford has lit the lights with a smart and satisfying production of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," the Frank Loesser-Abe Burrows musical that taught a generation of viperine office politicians how to stick a shiv into their bosses without leaving any fingerprints on the handle. Needless to say, it's Daniel Radcliffe, better known as Harry Potter, who's filling the seats, but it's Mr. Ashford who deserves most of the credit for the artistic success of this hard-charging, high-flying revival of a show whose gleaming craftsmanship is as self-evident today as when it opened on Broadway a half-century ago.
Radcliffe has plenty of help onstage from a very funny and smooth John Larroquette as boss J. B. Biggley, a gifted Christopher J. Hanke as his scheming rival Bud Frump, and the delightful Rose Hemingway as his romantic interest Rosemary Pilkington. To be blunt, Radcliffe is not a Broadway singer. His voice is nice, but thin and he strains to fill the theater - "American Idol" judge Randy Jackson would call it "pitchy." Somehow it doesn't matter. He works so hard that we're on his side even if he, like his character, doesn't have the creds. Plus, there's so much here that works: songs by Frank Loesser; a delightfully cynical book about corporate behavior that resonates today; Derek McLane's sets made of massive interlocking cubes; and Catherine Zuber's wickedly clever costumes, not to mention Ashford's cheer-inducing choreography that even takes advantage of Radcliffe's small stature and Larroquette's tall one.
As for the appealing Radcliffe, he's eager to please but lacks a certain urgency that makes Finch dangerous and irresistible at the same time. He's no singer ("I Believe in You," the show's best-known song, barely makes an impression) and not much of a dancer. Still, he does both more than respectably in the rousing "Brotherhood of Man" finale, which sends us home in a forgiving mood.
Ashford does a couple of very shrewd things. First and foremost, he pairs Radcliffe -- whose character races up a corporate ladder with the help of the titular self-help book (Anderson Cooper provides the famous recorded voice) -- with veteran sitcom star John Larroquette, who plays J.B. Biggley, the company president and the show's surrogate father. Larroquette, whose sardonic sense of comedic timing is flawless and whose pacing is relentless, tutors and draws Radcliffe through the book scenes, pulling more laughs than the work of book writers Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert usually now snags.
Daniel Radcliffe is so ador able in his Broadway musical debut, you just want to pinch his cheeks. It's not just his youth -- the "Harry Potter" star is 21 -- but the endearing amount of dedication and enthusiasm he pours into steering the new revival of "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
Pink is the color favored by Finch's love interest, the sweetly feisty secretary Rosemary Pilkington, who via newcomer Rose Hemingway becomes this season's most adorable and vivacious ingénue. Tammy Blanchard also shines as Biggley's dimwitted mistress, bringing sassy swagger and comic panache to the bimbo role. John Larroquette's Biggley is less of an instant hit, showing even more of a tendency to rush through lines than Radcliffe does, though with less obvious character-based incentive. But Larroquette grows funnier and more lovable as the show progresses, and manages an endearing chemistry with the considerably younger (and shorter) leading man. In fact, Radcliffe ultimately succeeds not by overshadowing his fellow cast members, but by working in conscientious harmony with them - and having a blast in the process.
Radcliffe is mainly earnest. He doesn't come off as someone trying to act earnest to get ahead but as someone who's just plain earnest. It's weird. But he's perfectly game and is to commended for continually trying to break out of his ascribed teen idol role. Alas, the big number "I Believe In You" falters without any sense of unrequited self love to propel it. Ironically, Radcliffe looks terrified! But he does nicely on the song "Rosemary" and scores every time he turns to the audience with a grin whenever he's gotten another promotion.
The featured players are good but their performances appear to be dialed down somewhat in deference to their star. John Larroquette makes an affable J.B. Biggley and Rose Hemingway looks pretty in pink as Rosemary. One wishes that Christopher J. Hanke provided a more eccentric spin on Frump but Tammy Blanchard’s relatively subtle turn as the helplessly sexy Hedy is sweeter than the usual vixen caricature. A droll Rob Bartlett is an endearing fellow both as a mailroom drudge and as a ranking tycoon.
He sings. He dances. Yes, the British mega-star formerly known as young Harry Potter even shaves, proudly, while delivering that irresistibly all-American self-love ballad, "I Believe in You," to his mirror in the executive bathroom in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
Individually, the entire cast is quite strong, but what they collectively lack is chemistry (yeah, chemistry…oops, wrong Loesser show). The beguiling Rose Hemingway imbues Rosemary with a self-assured sexuality and has a very pretty voice, though she and Radcliffe lack that crucial spark. Radcliffe connects slightly more with Larroquette, who is delicious as Biggley and tremendous in his scenes with the superb Tammy Blanchard as his vamp of a paramour, Hedy LaRue. Blanchard’s Hedy is not a dumb bimbo, she’s a cunning Jersey girl, a smarter version of Snooki. Mary Faber has some very nice moments as the sex-starved secretary Smitty, Christopher J. Hanke pushes too hard for laughs in the genuinely comic role of villain Bud Frump, and Rob Bartlett, Michael Park and Ellen Harvey excel in their roles.
The immediate question, of course, is whether Radcliffe is up to the demands of his leading musical comedy role. The answer is a qualified yes. The young actor has clearly worked hard, very hard, and while his singing is merely pleasant at best, he displays a very likeable and charming stage presence as J. Pierrepont Finch, the relentlessly ambitious schemer working his way up the corporate ladder. He lacks the inspired comic impishness of such predecessors as Robert Morse and Matthew Broderick—his too earnest delivery of the classic self-love number “I Believe in You” falls flat, for instance—but his youthful eagerness serves him well here. He speaks and sings with a flawless American accent, and his athletic dancing reveals plenty of hours spent in the rehearsal room.
Making his first foray into musical comedy and stepping into a part made famous by Robert Morse, Radcliffe is a likable but very boyish presence. He shows off a pleasant singing voice as corporate climber J. Pierrepont Finch, but he's waxen and not animated enough to make Finch soar. His take on his character's personal pep talk, "I Believe in You," emerges dispiriting. Still, director-choreographer Rob Ashford's production is bright, cheerful and energetic, that's for sure. But at times its supersized mentality and occasionally garish qualities compete with the sleek and sophisticated brilliance of the material.
Yet the thing that makes Radcliffe appealing as the amoral Finch is also a thing that limits him: You can tell that he is really trying. His timing is sharp, his dancing precise, his American accent impeccable; but his singing is shaky, and he doesn’t quite have the demonic spark of self-assurance that made Robert Morse a star in the role. (When he sings “I Believe in You” to himself in the mirror, it seems less a self-love song than a pep talk.)
In addition to his patented boyish charm, Radcliffe possesses deft comic instincts. Every time Finch turns to the spotlight with a conspiratorial acknowledgement that the plan for advancement is working to perfection, the audience roared in hysterics. His voice, pleasantly serviceable but not distinguished, worried me in his first number, "How to Succeed." The singing improved as the show went on, but he's no Robert Morse, who originated the role with so much musical theater élan and effortless personality (as the film version wonderfully documents) that comparisons are invidious. But then this revival would very likely never have come into existence without the Harry Potter hordes. Looking into the crystal ball, I see fewer musicals and more dramatic comedies in Radcliffe's future. He'll never match Hugh Jackman's versatility, but there's no shame in being a likable 2 1/4 threat.
While he doesn't quite pop as a musical-theater performer, the "Harry Potter" star does a capable job of singing and dancing in the revival, which also stars John Larroquette, Rose Hemingway, Tammy Blanchard and the voice of Anderson Cooper.
You start hoping for the best. Radcliffe's charm quotient is high, he showed significant stage chops two seasons ago in "Equus," and he grew up loving musical theater. In the opening number he displays a thin but true singing voice. But by the time he and a subdued Rob Bartlett get through Loesser's hilarious paean to yes men, "The Company Way," without generating a single laugh, it's clear we're in trouble. Once we get to Finch's Act 2 showstopper "I Believe in You," and Radcliffe merely stands there staring determinedly in the washroom mirror during the instrumental fills designed to give Morse room for sublime bits of comic business, well, the jig has long been up.
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John Larroquette, well cast in his own Broadway debut, gives it his smarmy all as J.B. Biggley, the World Wide Widgets president whom Finch successfully games. Derek McLane has designed a towering and very early-'60s modular set, all pastels and grays on a latticework of hexagons, like a singing three-martini lunch at whatever they're now calling Lever House restaurant. Catherine Zuber's costumes match: grays and pastels in mod slim suits and pillbox hats. And director and choreographer Rob Ashford has assembled a sprawling chorus and given them some gorgeous production numbers full of detailed, twitchy, athletic dances.
That makes Mr. Radcliffe the only reason to see the show, and contrary to what the title suggests, this young actor really, really tries. (He even does a somersault and lets himself be passed through the air for a football fantasy sequence.) His effortful performance is sure to stir maternal instincts among women of all ages (and probably some men too) and comradely protectiveness among his fans. And - who knows? - perhaps with time this game, engaged performer will come up with a real character to play here. Meanwhile, when he leads the show's big finale, the satirical rouser "Brotherhood of Man," you can be forgiven for thinking it might better be titled "Brotherhood of Manikins."
The star's cause is not bolstered much by director-choreographer Rob Ashford. His concept for the early '60s satire of American business - the story of a smarmily engaging young man who lies his way to the top - is to stylistically turn up the volume, saturating the stage in candy colors and frantic dances. As a result, the musical's digs at corporate life, at the overgrown bureaucracy and ingrown elitism, lose the whiff of sophistication that Frank Loesser's score emits.