Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Music Theater Works
by John Olson


Rick Rapp and Ken Singleton
Photo by Brett Beiner
Opportunities to see< i>How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in Chicago have not been rare over the past few years. Marriott Theatre revived it in 2016, and Porchlight Music Theatre did it just two years before that. But, true to its trademark style, Music Theater Works in Evanston is presenting the piece at a scale that puts the music first. The company's signature orchestra—a full Broadway-size 22 pieces—is present as usual, but what really distinguishes this production are the voices. This may be one of the best sung How to Succeeds most audience members are likely to ever hear. For those students of show music who are fascinated with the eclectic range of Frank Loesser's music and lyrics, this ought to be a special treat.

Starting at the top, with the character whose journey to succeed in business has him starting at the bottom, there's this production's J. Pierrepont Finch. He's played here by Ken Singleton, who from his first notes in the opening number gives the role his full-voiced bari-tenor. When one recalls the iconic performances of Robert Morse and Matthew Broderick in the original Broadway production and the 1996 revival—two singing actors cast more for their comedic skills than their voices—we get a sense of what's really in this jazzy, still contemporary-sounding score. And given the confidence and brio in Singleton's performance, we see why the other executives would be threatened by Finch.

Singleton is matched note for note by Nicole Armold as Ponty's love interest, the secretary Rosemary. Just as strong vocally are Maisie Rose as the secretary Smitty, Jake Stempel as Finch's rival Bud Frump (played broadly and fearlessly), and Liz Norton as the imposing Executive Secretary Miss Jones. Rick Rapp brings a wry sense of humor to the role of the J.B. Biggley, President of the World Wide Wicket Company, showing us a man who's really tired of the rat race but benefitting too much from it to give it up.

The ensemble does right by Loesser's score as well. And as rich and varied a composer and lyricist as was Loesser, the original Broadway production of How to Succeed was a showcase for another Golden Age great, Bob Fosse. Choreographer Clayton Cross has created dances for the showcase numbers—most notably "Coffee Break," "A Secretary Is Not a Toy," and "Brotherhood of Man"—that honor the great Fosse's work and are crisply executed by the dancers.

The action all plays on a sleek and colorful set of mid-century midtown Manhattan design by designers Christopher Rhoton and Shane Cinal. The colorful flats move smoothly and quickly to take us to the different places within the World Wide Wickets headquarters. Costume designer Sanja Manakoski similarly dresses the cast in period-perfect pastels that complete the retro feel.

Director Rudy Hogenmiller generally keeps the pace lively for the book scenes, though in keeping with the Music Theater Works tradition of performing the whole piece as originally presented, it runs a little long (nearly three hours) by today's standards. Some trimming of the dance numbers, overture and entr'acte might make for an evening more suited to audience expectations.

How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, through June 16, 2019, at Music Theater Works, Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street, Evanston IL. Tickets and further information is available at www.musictheaterworks.org or by phone at 847-920-5360.


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