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Theater Review : How to Succeed in Revival 'Business' : La Jolla Production, En Route to Broadway, Is a Visual Treat and Showcase for Company Talent

November 01, 1994|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

LA JOLLA — If you're going to revive a 1961 musical with a song called "A Secretary Is Not a Toy," you'd better do it all the way--brash and smart and unabashed. From the thrilling opening notes of its overture, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" announces it is all that, and more. Director Des McAnuff has the visual daring and sheer chutzpah to deliver the goods, and he does, in this, his farewell production as artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse, a theater he has made into one of the most exciting in the country. His legacy to successor Michael Greif is an old theatrical one: a hard act to follow.

Speaking of which, how about trying to follow the unforgettable Robert Morse in the role of Finch, the impossibly lovable amoral window-washer who climbs to the true top of the huge World Wide Wicket Company in a matter of weeks with the help of a little book and the woman who loves him? Matthew Broderick uses his famous tentativeness to create a comic timing and a Finch all his own, one whose back-stabbing is a complete pleasure to behold.

The performance works best when Finch himself is tentative, such as in the number that shows off his boyish flirting, "Been a Long Day," and especially in the hilarious "Grand Old Ivy," when he pretends to know the college song of the firm's firm-voiced president, J. B. Biggley (Robert Mandan). But in the title song, an ode to ambition, his Finch is nowhere near "burning hot with front-office fever," as one jealous executive puts it. Broderick sticks close to the song's meter and likewise to Wayne Cilento's simple but elegant choreography for him throughout the show. He never really lets himself go, although he may become more comfortable in time. Still, his performance points up how difficult it is for actors who work primarily in film to embrace that high voltage, take-the-stage-or-die Broadway musical style that Morse embodied.

That fabulous aesthetic, though, is far from dead. Witness Jonathan Freeman as the unctuous personnel manager Bratt, and Broadway lives again. Taking his place alongside such physical-comedy greats as Jackie Gleason and Nathan Lane, Freeman is brilliantly hammy as the middle management executive who can turn from imperious to a toadying clown with the ring of a phone. In "A Secretary Is Not a Toy," he sternly lectures the men in the company, but, confronted with the hips of Hedy La Rue (Luba Mason), the "bubble-headed tomato" who Biggley is forcing him to hire, his jowls and shoulders dance unwittingly, conveying a different message entirely.

In addition, McAnuff revives and reinvigorates the old style razzle-dazzle with amazing visual treats (thanks in large part to computerized images) as fun and animated as those in a Disney musical, with the sophistication of classic Manhattan deco thrown in as well.

With music and lyrics by the master Frank Loesser and an Abe Burrows/Jack Weinstock/Willie Gilbert book that is as cunning and likable as its hero, "How to Succeed" offers an environment in which a secretary may at any moment be pinched, but where it is also permissible to smack an executive's face. The male executive/ female secretary division is externally imposed; it clearly has no relation to intelligence whatsoever. As for the original all-white office, it has been integrated, no explanation necessary.

Set designer John Arnone and video designers Batwin-Robin Productions have cast the Manhattan skyscraper as a leading role in the production. The great office walls are grids of light and color, a la Piet Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie" but with pastels merrily offsetting the painter's primary palette. The walls whirl and blink at exciting events such as the descent of an elevator, and the skyline in the background also shifts radically for the ride.

*

Lighting designer Howell Binkley bathes these walls in rich tones, most memorably in a brilliant amber for a sentimental love song between two expert connivers, Biggley and La Rue.

Even more fun, the Manhattan skyline in the background takes a turn whenever a character striding down a corridor does. And when Rosemary dreams of her marriage to Finch in "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm," the computer takes us, as if by helicopter, zooming over the George Washington Bridge to encircle her suburban dream house, and descends right down to her peach-rimmed, periwinkle-blue front door with the little love-bird knockers. Visually, this production is a complete trip.

As Rosemary, Megan Mullally is a nasal, fast-thinking, wisecracking doll, a kind of Barbara Stanwyck with Marlo Thomas "That Girl" hair. She is gracefully gamin, both siren and wholesome in her below-the-knee pleated skirt and crimson pumps. All of Susan Hilferty's mod costumes are bright and amusing, and Luba Mason's Hedy, wearing what appears to be the precursor to the Miracle Bra under a gold dress, looks particularly swell.

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