A brash, ambitious young man dreams of rising to the top. He’s manipulative and not above using those around him. He falls in love but even romance drops to second place on his agenda. He’s self-centered, narcissistic, and ultimately successful.
Is this Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street? That’s about 25 years too late. Before Jordan Belfort came on the scene in 1987, there was J. Pierrepont Finch in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. With a book by Abe Burrows, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, How to Succeed endures because the Horatio Alger theme never grows old; there’s always a new generation reaching for the stars. And the new production at the Olney Theatre Center reminds us what terrific entertainment this musical can be.
Sam Ludwig is perfect as Finch, the window washer who uses a book to plot his rise in business. (It’s a treat hearing Ian McKellen as the narrator, reading aloud the oftentimes hilarious advice.) Ludwig, who has appeared in 1776 and Huck Finn at Olney, displays a wide-eyed innocence – literally, when the spotlight catches him in a “moment’ – as he misleads and tricks those around him. With a strong voice and exuding energy and enthusiasm in the musical’s well choreographed segments, Ludwig is an engaging Finch. It’s hard not to root for him even when his tactics are less than honest.
As Rosemary, the secretary out to nab Finch, Angela Miller is delightful. (This has never been “Lean In” territory, but the success of Mad Men has helped younger women understand what it took women of that era to survive.) Miller has a terrific voice and is given ample time to shine with some of the show’s signature songs, “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” and “Paris Original” where she’s joined with other members of the secretarial pool, including Aileen Goldberg, a standout as Smitty.
As Finch’s competition, Dan Van Why’s Bud Frump is fun to watch. Van Why’s facial expressions, accentuated by his oversized eyeglasses, give him the startled appearance of a cartoon character. Whether he’s grimacing talking to his mom on the phone, or curling up into a ball absorbing the latest blows to his career, we know that he’s down but not out.
Lawrence Redmond as the big boss J.B. Bigley seesaws between being the pompous head of the World Wide Wicket Company and the besotted married man chasing after Hedy LaRue (Colleen Hayes). He joins Ludwig for a rousing rendition of “Grand Old Ivy.”
Kudos to Costume Designer Seth Gilbert who outfitted the secretaries in those fabulous bright dresses with bouffant slips. In the dance numbers, the outfits swish and twirl. Scene changes are seamless. Particularly inventive is the mail room, with all those cubbyholes holding letters, and the wash room where Finch sings one of the show’s best tunes, “I Believe in You.”
The high point is the company coming together to celebrate “Brotherhood of Man.” Sherri L. Edelen, who plays Bigley’s secretary Miss Jones, has no trouble leading the anthem, hitting the high notes from her perch on the company’s conference table.
How to Succeed has less in common with the cynical Wall Street wolf, coming closer to the 1987 Michael J. Fox film The Secret of My Success. Like Finch, Fox’s character Brantley Foster, starts in the mail room, employs his wits and wiles to get ahead, and wins in both business and love. These days the mail room is vanishing and young people dream of starting a hedge fund or inventing the next app. Still the basic theme remains the same – dreaming of success. It’s a timeless story that never fails to find a receptive audience.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Olney Theatre Center