Clarke Peters doesn’t appear in the official Darren Bell rehearsal photo set for How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which might explain why he fluffed so many times, lost his place in the script and kept laughing at the other actors’ gags – maybe he hadn’t heard them before? Whatever the reason, playing J B Biggley the head of the firm up whose greasy pole Jonathan Groff’s J Pierrepont Finch is determined to climb, it was pretty unforgiveable.
Learning Hannah Waddingham was cast in this concert version, I automatically assumed she’d be Biggley’s secretary, the powerful fixer Miss Jones and give full voice to the top line in Brotherhood of Man covered so magnificently by Ellen Harvey in the recent Daniel Radcliffe Broadway version. But ingeniously, and perhaps because this was as much for radio as stage on the night, she’s Hedy La Rue the ex-nightclub cigarette girl who climbs J B Biggley’s pole in an altogether different way. She is, of course, outstanding, but has to work three times as hard to get the laughs because of playing opposite such an ill-prepared Peters.
Which leaves Anna-Jane Casey delivering a pert Jonesy with a bright but lost-under-the-band coloratura and a dragging limp as though she were auditioning for House. The character doesn’t have a limp because Harvey tapped and sashayed her way through the Broadway show, so maybe Casey has already sustained an injury from Tapping Her Troubles Away in rehearsals for Mack and Mabel in Chichester?
Groff made a charming host and sang elegantly, although possibly he’s too ‘nice’ for Ponty, and although not at all a conventional ‘June Cleaver’ portrayal, Cynthia Erivo’s voice gave new nuances to the role of Rosemary and some actual chemistry to the romance. Great support also from Amy Ellen Richardson as her water cooler co-conspirator Smitty, Nic Colicos vocally the best of the businessmen, and intermittently from Ashley Robinson as Biggley’s vile nephew Bud Frump who seemed way out of sync with the rest of the cast and in a much funnier show of his own.
How to Succeed (1967) is, like Promises Promises (1968), a strange ‘office’ show from an era whose manners and mores are out of step with our own: who would now consider a musical where the men treat secretaries as toys, the clock-punching and coffee breaking is more formalized than Made in Dagenham, and the heroine’s ambition is to stay home and keep dinner warm for her man? What made anyone revive them on Broadway?
I blame ‘Mad Men’.
Without the Mad Men visuals and stripped of any choreography, this isn’t the easiest three hours – amazingly twenty minutes longer than the Broadway production – and the ‘soggy middle’ between the bright start of Ponty’s ascent through the company and the rip-roaring ‘Brotherhood of Man’ finale, there’s considerable tedium due to some pretty bland orchestrations, numbers which really need full staging to bring out their best, and Mike Dixon‘s failure to lash the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra to the more jazzed pace they could easily achieve.
How to Succeed was so under-sold the Festival Hall had a separate collection desk for the 50% off Time Out tickets. Don’t hold out much hope for the same production team’s even more arcane Of Thee I Sing due at the RFH in July.
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