Notwithstanding the Royal Festival Hall concert performance two years ago, Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying is a rarity, especially compared to his Guys and Dolls from a decade earlier. But its tuneful exposé of office life (which hasn’t really changed that much since 1960s’ America) is neatly constructed with a clutch of catchy melodies as it follows J. Pierrepont Finch (‘Ponty’) rapidly up the ladder in the World Wide Wicket Company, courtesy of his adherence to a self-help book to end all self-help books, giving its title to the whole caboodle.
In this production at Wilton’s Music Hall it gets a colourful and energetic shake down, which makes up for the tight squeeze on Wilton’s stage, albeit with even harder-working cast members wheeling desks, chairs, even urinals on to and off the stage. The cast also negotiates the steps down from the main stage at the back to the apron stage, even while dancing.
Mike Lees’s set, with a prominent ‘W’ logo over a representation of the globe (with a peculiarly small India, I noted) flanked by two lift doors, finds a place for the sizeable band of nine behind an intricate grill above the lift shafts – would that all elevator music be of such quality as under musical director Ben Ferguson! Everything else is manoeuvred on from side stage or through the louvered world map.
Largely set in period (1960s; I thought the executive trim phones were anachronistic, but they were from then, admittedly from the middle of the decade) and with a wardrobe of colourful costumes (especially of patent leather shoes – pink, green and silver), Benji Sperring’s loving production mines lots of merriment as our hero leapfrogs the president’s nephew Bud Frump up the corporate pecking order, while the receptionist Rosemary Pilkington, attempts her own campaign to hook ‘Ponty’ for herself. Indeed she could be an adherent of a sister-publication, How to Succeed in Love without Really Trying.
A largely youthful cast (Andrew C. Wadsworth’s J. B. Biggley a notable exception – I first saw him in the original UK production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in 1980) is led with Alan Cumming-like impishness by Marc Pickering as ‘Ponty’, always able to find the spotlight when another part of his plan comes to fruition with a knowing smile (even when the spotlight misses him almost entirely). His mentoring book is vocalised, although in this production that voice is unaccredited. He has a good singing voice too, matching his likeable personality in the part, especially in the Act One climax, ‘Rosemary’. Other stand-out moments include that all-too-embarrassing moment when you find your unique dress is also worn by a fellow guest. Here Hannah Grover’s Rosemary turns from dreamy wish-fulfilment to spitting daggers in ‘Paris Original’, when no four ‘original’ dresses are heading for the same launch.
Maisey Bawden’s prim and proper (if red bewigged) Miss Jones breaks out in fine style in the climactic ‘Brotherhood of Man’, doo-wop-wopping as the finest, while Lizzii Hills characterises the ditzy blonde Hedy La Rue to a tee. With a small cast, the mother of invention sees Bawden and Nuwan Hugh Perera adopt split personalities, one half-female, one half-male (their costumes split down the middle) to flesh out ‘A Secretary is Not a Toy’.
Americanisms (there are references to specific American personalities, college monikers and companies) pass by without perhaps their original meaning specifically understood, but the general idea seems clear. Whether that has hampered the show’s status, this is an enjoyable revival that looks good in its Wilton’s setting, largely overcoming the restricted nature of the historic facilities. Voices are amplified, but the sound balance is good, not least because of the excellence of the band.
How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying continues until April 22, with matinees Wednesday and Saturday.