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How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying — Walnut Street Theatre

succeed05 Casey Hushion favors the fast and peppy.

Her production of “Nerds” for Philadelphia Theatre Company benefited from non-stop movement, a breathless pace, and a sense of constant urgency that enhanced the comic approach to the send-up.

Now at the Walnut, directing a different satirical saga of corporate structure, Frank Loesser’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Hushion once again infuses her show with steady kinetic vivacity and the theatrically wise idea that keeping things on the perpetual ‘go’ is preferable to the slightest hint of dead time, even at the expense of establishing dimensional characters or palpable romance.

Hushion’s priorities are well-placed. The expense I mention is not all that costly and worth the sacrifice of dramatic texture. Loesser defines his characters, their types, and their purpose so well, they don’t need to be too deeply or carefully drawn. Romance in “How to Succeed” is paper-thin, neither lead character, Finch nor Rosemary, having many opportunities to cast sparks at each other or do more than superficially woo. Finch’s self-engineered climb up the executive ladder is all that matters, and Hushion and her cast make that ascension brisk and bright and, more importantly, funny and entertaining. Constantly entertaining. Endlessly entertaining!

As in “Nerds,” Hushion concentrates her attention on color, size, comedy, and choreography. Everything is  big, loud, and bustling, like the halls and conference rooms of a major corporation that must design, manufacture, sell, advertise, and keep shareholders happy.

Production numbers all have luster and snap. The milieu of “How to Succeed’s” World Wide Wickets brims to animated life during the show’s opening number in which Finch reveals his plan to use the instructions written in a dime-a-dozen self-help book to catapult to the CEO berth at a major company. Hushion’s direction, paired with Michele Lynch’s angular choreography, turns Loesser’s “Coffee Break” from a small but inspired musical comment on the exhausting dullness of office life to an hilarious and telling essay on the necessity of workday stimulation. Figures look stricken when they learn they may be denied their caffeine. Dancers go from zombie-like to craven, some in a daze, some in a frenzy. Lynch wittily uses slow motion and odd poses to show the desperation of the workers who need their cuppa joe to proceed with their day. I’ve seen the “Coffee Break” sequence die on the vine. Lynch and Hushion make it a work of art.

All scenes that involve extensive choreography take off with brio. “A Secretary is Not a Toy,” another number that can fall flat in spite of Loesser’s witty intentions, comes vibrantly to life and makes its point about fondling and dandling and playfully handling while amusing as designed. Really grand numbers, like the dance that surrounds Finch’s most important solo,  “I Believe in You,” soar with energy while showing the envy and menace Loesser assigns to Finch’s rivals and the confidence and charm with which he endows Finch. The 11 o’clock number, “Brotherhood of Man” builds and builds until the Walnut is a temple of celebration and exuberant fraternal benevolence. Joilet F. Harris, who breaks from a staid character to a tyro, foments the eruption, almost singlehandedly.

The tone of Hushion’s production takes its cue from the big musical sequences she and Lynch craft so excitingly. The knowing commentary in “How to Succeed’s” book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, takes on a fizzy joy. You’re treated to smart, flashy comedy that makes all the points it has to but places the emphasis on the creative razzle dazzle of putting on a show. Hushion’s vibrant production crackles with life from beginning to end. It is a snowballing energy machine that remains so frothily effervescent, you can’t help but ride its train to high-spirited fun.

No director or choreographer can provide such uninterrupted frolic without the help of an excellent cast, and the Walnut company surges along making every bit of Hushion’s or Lynch’s wit and bounciness hit its mark.

Along with its zest, the Walnut’s “How to Succeed” makes clear the jaundiced spoof of impersonal business that Loesser, Burrows, Weinstock, and Gilbert intend.  Swipes at staying under the radar, saying yes to supervisors,  and doing things the company way join with looks at board room backstabbing, the perils of getting noticed, or heaven forfend, being the one who has to come up with an actual new idea in “How to Succeed.” Commentary earned it its 1962 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and Hushion elicits Burrows and company’s satire as well as their jokes.

She is abetted by an able cast in which Mark Jacoby as World Wide Wickets’s president, Brian Shepard as his weasly conniving nephew, Amy Bodnar as a floozy who is not so dumb as her blond hair and Billie Dawn accent imply, and Harris, who registers as both a strict manager and an uninhibited hoyden, stand out for giving weight and personality to their characters even as Hushion makes it clear sticking to caricature will do.

Jeremy Morse is a winning Finch, using cuteness and boyish innocence to mask his ruthless, unrepentant cunning, Jeffrey Coon finds a way to set his character, Bert Bratt, apart from the mix, and Ed Romanoff shows strength and adds to Hushion’s general merriment in two roles, but they don’t find the extra individuality Jacoby, Shepard, Bodnar, and Harris muster.

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” chronicles the rise of the young and impish window washer, J. Pierpont Finch, Ponty, as he follows cynically written instructions about getting promotions while avoiding real responsibility and the slightest semblance of work.

Morse matches Hushion’s production by keeping his performance light and breezy as Finch.

The actor is a whirlwind who handles his big scenes with wide-eyed innocence while punctuating all of Ponty’s  accidental triumphs and strategic victories with a freeze-framed grin at the Walnut audience.

Although he is no relation to Robert Morse, the actor who originated and earned a 1962 Tony for the role of Finch, Jeremy Morse sounds a lot like the gifted veteran comedian (last seen notably as Bertram Cooper on TV’s “Mad Men”).

Songs are Morse’s biggest challenge. His voice has range and size, but it also has a buzzing quality that doesn’t blend well with other singers, most notably Becky Gulsvig, who plays Finch’s love interest, Rosemary, and has a buzz sound of her own to contend with, so that in duet the pair sounds more like Mickey and Minnie Mouse than legit Broadway warblers.

That is my one cavil about Morse. His singing is not attractive. It is good enough to get his numbers across, including his most famous song, “I Believe in You.”

Morse is a constant bundle of energy and movement. His Ponty leaves no grass under his feet in his quest to get to the World Wide Wicket’s top office. The actor seems inexhaustible is what must be an exhausting performance.

All the motion keeps Morse from showing much emotion. His Finch has no time for such subtlety or sensitivity. He is focused on the brass ring without much thought as to whether he can run an international conglomerate and without much attention to his personal life, including his relationship with Rosemary, which in Hushion’s production, is more a given in “How to Succeed’s” script that something you see acted out in front of you.

Morse makes you root for Ponty. Inexperienced and blindly ambitious as he is, Finch is more attractive than the executives who compete against him for advancement. Jeffrey Coon’s Mr. Bratt and Scott Langdon’s Mr. Gatch both seem more suited for promotion, but Morse’s bouncy élan earns your support. Morse may not give Ponty much depth, but he combines natural amiability with nervy brashness to make you a Ponty fan.

Marc Jacoby takes a different tack from most actors playing World Wide’s president, J.B. Biggley, by moving away from a light, spoofing look at a corporate chief and giving him the qualities of a competent, hands-on boss.

Jacoby endows his Biggley with a core of reality no one in the Walnut cast, with the possible exception of Amy Bodnar, comes close to achieving. You believe Jacoby can be in full charge of a major business entity. He exudes authority and corporate skill.

Even in moments that are flat-out comic, e.g. when we see J.B. knit to relax, realize he knuckles under to his wife in regard to his nephew, Frump, or watch as he wheedles upon being caught with his blond bombshell of a mistress, Jacoby maintains Biggley’s polish and dignity, eliciting more laughs. He is both authoritative and funny when he joins Finch in his college’s fight song, “Grand Old Ivy,” never losing his poise when he scrunches up his face and turns his hands to paws while exalting Old Ivy’s mascot, the groundhog, and vowing a to rip, rip, rip a rival’s chipmunk off the field.

Jacoby manages to be authentic within the context of Hushion’s perpetual motion machine, and that is a stellar achievement from this always reliable actor.

Joilet F. Harris, who can play her part strictly for comedy while waiting for her character’s big moment in “Brotherhood of Man,” demonstrates shrewd individuality in the way she struts down the World Wide Wicket halls as J.B.’s secretary, Miss Jones, giving everyone a stern eye and firm orders until she is flattered successfully by Ponty, to whom she takes an immediate liking. Harris goes from Gorgon to Finch admirer in sudden bursts that make her performance realistic and funny.

Anyone who has ever seen Joilet Harris knows the woman can wail with the best of the belters, and when Miss Jones gets religion and takes over Lynch’s “Brotherhood of Man” extravaganza, we all have a noble feeling and are dazzled by Harris’s musical power and ability to grab the stage and hold it.

Brian Shepard is one of the best Bud Frumps I’ve seen, and I’ve seen plenty of them. Shepard is smart in his approach to the character. He is mean, oily, and tied to his mother’s and aunt’s apron strings, but he also seems like someone who can hold and do a job. It is the aura of competence Shepard gives Frump that sets him apart.

The way he conveys intelligence also makes him a more formidable enemy to Ponty.

In addition to his strong acting, Shepard is an excellent dancer and anchors Lynch’s great work on the “Coffee Break” number.

Like Shepard, Amy Bodnar shows the brains behind her allegedly dumb blonde, Hedy LaRue, who sounds like Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont in “Singin’ in the Rain” but is a high-tone call girl who is also having an affair with Jacoby’s Mr. Biggley and takes a shine to Ponty.

More than anyone in Hushion’s “How to Succeed” cast, even more than Jacoby, Bodnar displays great versatility as Hedy, portraying clearly both her street wisdom and book ignorance while showing she has the ultimate smarts to get everything she wants. In dealing with Morse’s Finch, Bodnar conveys a woman who likes having her ego salved but also has the shrewdness to know she is being flattered and takes advantage of it.

Bodnar’s is a complete and clever performance, and she sings and dances as well as she acts so that she brings unusual intensity to every scene in which she appears.

Becky Gulsvig looks like Mary Tyler Moore in the dark lobe-length flip costumer Lisa Zinni designed for her wig.

Gulsvig meets all demands as Rosemary. You see her crusade for Ponty even though in her eyes, you see a woman who is amused at a bratty little boy more than one who is in love.

Like Moore, Gulsvig plays the rational, reasonable person in a bizarre crew. The speed and animation with which Hushion moves the show doesn’t give Gulsvig many opportunities to give Rosemary dimension. The character may sing about being happy to keep Ponty’s dinner warm in their New Rochelle mansion, but she doesn’t get the chance to express much warmth and doesn’t take the initiative to convey it when she does.

Gulsvig’s voice seems more suited for playing the character role of Smitty than it is for playing Rosemary.

Cary Michele Miller is cast as Smitty and does a decent job but is overshadowed in the character role department by Shepard, Harris, Bodnar, and Romanoff.

Romanoff shows great enthusiasm as he extols his survival instincts in Loesser’s witty paean to corporate loyalty, “The Company Way,” and is a crafty, believable chairman of World Wide Wickets’s board in later scenes.

Robert Andrew Kovach’s set is attractive and versatile, giving a colorful and stylish look to the steno pool and other office settings while leaving Hushion and Lynch ample space to clear the Walnut floor for their rousing dance sequences. The washroom construction for “I Believe in You” is quite impressive.

Lisa Zinni captures the early ’60s look of the women’s clothes, a knack I truly appreciate because my favorite era for women’s fashions is from 1949 to 1964 — I adore those Doris Day outfits — and shrewdly dressed the men in a kind of monochrome while setting off Ponty in a shiny bright greenish-blue suit with turquoise accents and Frump by giving him a printed sport shirt that contrasted well with the regimented white shirts most of the male ensemble wore.

Thank you, Craig Beyrooti, for finding the right sound levels to make lyrics audible and intelligible. You should make a tour of other local theaters and teach fellow sound designers about how to place their settings. Most of your colleagues deserve to be smitten by the ghosts of Lorenz Hart and Dorothy Fields! (If Tim O’Heir, the sound designer for a mega-amplified rock musical like Broadway’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” can challenge decibel tolerance while making sure every lyric is heard clearly, what stops the local lunks from doing the same? I, for one, am willing to suspend my admiration for train whistles, ambient traffic, sirens, sea waves, crying babies, etc. if I can’t hear every word an actor is singing because some devil of a sound designer pitched the levels too hot. Don’t get me started on those charlatans called dialect coaches.)

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” runs through Sunday, July 13 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia.  Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday,  2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, and 7 p.m. Sunday. No 2 p.m. matinee is scheduled for Saturday, May 31 or Thursday,  June 19 or July 10. No 7 p.m. show is set for Sunday, June 29. Tickets range from $95 to $10 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or by going online to www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

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