How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying – Southwark Playhouse Borough, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Music and Lyrics: Frank Loesser

Book: Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock & Willie Gilbert, based on the novel by Shepherd Mead

Director: Georgie Rankcom

First published in 1952, Shepherd Mead’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is referred to as a novel in the credits for Frank Loesser’s musical adaptation, which first hit Broadway in 1961. But the book has no plot: instead, it is structured as an instructional manual, a work that satirised both the self-help book industry and the world of post-war business in all its misogynistic technicolor.

That lack of a narrative in Mead’s book means that the adaptation takes some creative leaps in the journey to the stage. The book itself becomes a character – voiced in Georgie Rankcom’s fun reimagining by Drag Race star Michelle Visage – consulted by J. Pierrepont Finch (Gabrielle Freedman) in the character’s quest to advance from the mailroom to the highest echelons of corporate success in as short a time as possible.

When the musical was first staged, it was every bit as much a satire of contemporary office politics as the book. But that was over 60 years ago, and subsequent revivals have seen it slide into a festival of nostalgia. The issues Mead covered, and which Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert amplified in their book for the musical, remain. The language may have changed – the phrases “sexual harassment” and “glass ceiling” are modern terms in comparison to the work – but any successful revival should have as clear a sense of what the musical has to say about 2023 as it had about 1961.

Rankcom attacks that conundrum head on not by modernising the tone or the style of the piece, but with an imaginative eye to casting. Two of the key roles – Freedman’s Finch and Tracie Bennett as company president Jasper B. Biggley – are recast with the women playing men. While the characters’ genders are not flipped, with just that little touch Rankcom’s take on this corporate world becomes more allegorical: its style and language is of the mid-20th Century, but its message is now timeless.

Finch’s ascendancy through the ranks of the World Wide Wicket Corporation – sometimes through fast talking, sometimes duplicitousness and often through sheer dumb luck – is catalogued through a series of deliciously rich songs by Loesser, with a score that is on a par with, if not better than, his much better known Guys and Dolls. From the title song to the final, unifying anthem of Brotherhood of Man, each number is eminently memorable (and, under the musical direction of Natalie Pound, expertly performed by a four-piece band that manage to deliver a sound befitting a much larger orchestra).

The story also benefits from a book rich with comedic potential. That is expertly brought to the fore here, with every character mining the absurdity of the lines. Visage’s readings as The Book are warm, peppy and far from the pace-killers other revivals have suffered from. Annie Aitken as voluptuous airhead Hedy LaRue is perhaps the most stereotypical role, emulating the warmth of Maureen Arthur’s performance in the 1967 film adaptation.

But the real revelation throughout is Allie Daniel’s Rosemary, the secretary who finds herself attracted to Finch from the off, only to become neglected as her beau concentrates on climbing the corporate ladder. Not only does Daniel have the vocal range that adds layers to a traditionally demure role – she can flip from besotted to outraged and back on a dime – but every line reading elevates the character. Traditionally the only sane person in a company full of idiots and mad men, Daniel gives Rosemary a hilariously droll spirit that transforms the character and, by association, the whole piece.

Not that Daniel is alone in this. Every character has nice little touches, especially Elliot Gooch as conniving Bud Frump, always eager to use his status as Biggley’s nephew to his own advantage. Verity Power as Rosemary’s best friend Smitty, meanwhile, gives perhaps the broadest comedy performance of the lot.

Amongst all that, sometimes Friedman and Bennett – neither of whose portrayals ever go quite as broad as their castmates – sometimes feel slightly less foregrounded. But when the comedy is as consistent and as slickly delivered by the entire ensemble, this matters little.

Some lovely choreography from Alexzandra Sarmiento, from big numbers to some delightfully subtle footwork from Danny Lane as mailroom boss Twimble, helps complement a delightfully retro-chic production.

The one snag is Sophia Pardon’s set design. The inclusion of an illuminated ladder, a physical manifestation of Finch’s desire for ascendancy, is both striking and, at times, a slight encumbrance. The ladder motif is echoed in the office furniture – but the Playhouse’s small space means that desks, chairs and even stepladders have to be continuously carted on and offstage. That adds an edge of clumsiness that this production does not deserve, and to its credit manages to rise above.

The result is a production which reinvigorates a musical that, despite its pedigree as a Broadway show that earned multiple Tony Awards and even a Pulitzer Prize, has become one of the lesser known of the canon. By giving How to Succeed… a hilarious new lease of life, Georgie Rankcom and their team illustrate the one lesson we always hope to see on stage: how to succeed at musical theatre by trying really hard.

Continues until 17 June 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Retro-chic, timeless satire

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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