Tootsie wasn’t the only show we saw last weekend, and it’s not the only review I owe you. We also saw the one-night-only performance of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying from Musical Theatre Guild (FB). MSG has an interesting conceit: They do rarely produced musical under a special contract with Actors Equity: it is treated as a staged concert, with minimal set pieces / costumes, only 25 hours of rehearsal, and actors performing with scripts in hand. That’s right: Tootsie was non-union, and How To Succeed was an Equity production.
Going in, I was expecting to do a compare and contrast of this musical with Tootsie. After all, both deal with the work place, and especially women’s roles in the workplace. There’s at least a 20 year difference between How to Succeed and the film Tootsie (1962 vs 1982), and 40 years from screen to stage for Tootsie (1982 vs 2022).
Expectations get dashed. I was expecting How To Succeed (book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser) to be a period piece. In how it portrayed the American office — it was. Offices have changed greatly since the 1960s: there are no open bullpens, there aren’t the ubiquitous secretaries or a secretarial pool. We have office professionals now. But where I was expecting a completely sexist image with loads of sexual harassment … there was precious little. As the song emphases, “A Secretary is Not a Toy”. The show makes clear that the sexual harassment part is off the table. Office romances aren’t, but those still happen today. Would an office professional of today have as their goal marrying the boss? I can’t answer that. More likely, with the harassment policies in place, they would marry someone else’s boss.
So the story isn’t as creaky as one might expect — and certainly it wasn’t problematic like Tootsie was. It was, however, very funny. I’ll admit it was hard to not see the recently departed Robert Morse in the role (and in my mind’s eye, I did see him). But this cast brought the funny to the show, and the director Yvette Lawrence brought it out of them. I’m of the belief that in a staged concert like this, a lot of the character comes from what the actor brings; the director is bringing the individual actors into an ensemble. Both worked well: great individual performances combined with a strong ensemble. The dancing (choreography was by Cheryl Baxter) was relatively simple, but the nature of this performance dictated that: with 25 hours the goal is to get the acting and singing right first; complicated dance pieces are a lower priority. But what was there was good.
In the lead positions were Travis Leland J. Pierpont Finch and Chelsea Morgan Stock Rosemary Pilkington. Leland brought a wonderful voice and playfulness to Finch; he beats Morse out in the handsome department. He was a lot of fun to watch. Stock was strong was Rosemary, even with some microphone problems at the top of the second act. Cute and delightful to watch, with a strong singing voice.
The secondary characters in this story require strong comic abilities. Luckily, Katie DeShan Smitty and Joshua Finkel Bud Frump were up to the task. Strong in singing, and strong in comic ability — they were fun to watch. They both seemed to be having a lot of fun with the roles.
In more supporting roles were Thomas Ashworth J. B. Biggley; Melissa Fahn Hedy LaRue; and Kim Yarbrough Miss Jones. Ashworth brought the right gravitas to Biggley, whom we’ve all run into if we’ve been in the corporate world. He was strong in “Groundhog”. I was a big less impressed with Fahn. She got the voice and characterization right, but less so the look (although she tried). Yarbrough’s character is mostly a rarely seen office professional; she’s notable for the standout performance she gets in “Brotherhood of Man”. She did great there, which was where she was supposed be great.
Rounding out the cast were: James Gleason Mr. Twimble / Mr. Wally Womper; Bryan Chesters Mr. Bert Bratt; Todd Gajdusek Mr. Miilton Gatch / Executive Toynbee; Jennifer Bennett Miss Krumholtz / Scrubwoman; Nancy Lam Miss Matthews / Scrubwoman / Wickette; Sharon Logan Miss Johnson / Scrubwoman / Wickette; Kevin Matsumoto Mr. Davis / Wicket Dancer; Mark C. Reis Mr. Ovington / Wicket Dancer / Company Policeman; Brent Schindele Mr. Jenkins / TV Announcer; Paul Wong Mr. Tackaberry; and Susan Edwards Martin Voice of the Book. I’ll note that we saw Bennett in a Cantors Concert recently at our synagogue.
Music was provided by an onstage band consisting of Dan Redfeld Piano / Conductor; Justin Smith Guitar, Shane Harry Bass, Joe Martone Percussion, and one more on trumpet who was named at the time of performance.
Rounding out the production team was: Susan Edwards Martin Production Coordinator; Leesa Freed Production Stage Manager / Production Manager; Stacey Cortez Assistant Stage Manager; Abbey Perez Assistant Stage Manager; and Shon LeBlanc Costume Designer.
This was the only performance of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member (modulo the COVID break). I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Actors Co-op (FB), 5 Star Theatricals (FB), Broadway in Hollywood (FB), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and we have a membership at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB). We were subscribing at the Musical Theatre Guild (FB) prior to COVID; they have not yet resumed productions. We have also been subscribers at the Soraya/VPAC (FB), although we are waiting a year before we pick that up again. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups. Note to publicists or producers reading this: here’s my policy on taking comp tickets. Bottom-Line: Only for things of nominal value, like Fringe.
For right now, we’re pretty much sticking with shows that come as part of our subscriptions or are of interest through our memberships. That may change later in 2022. Looking further into 2022: May brings Hadestown at at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). June will see Come From Away at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Pretty Woman at Broadway in Hollywood (FB), as well as Tom Paxon at McCabes plus as much of the Hollywood Fringe Festival as we have the energy for. July brings Moulin Rouge at Broadway in Hollywood (FB) [Pantages], Dear Evan Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), Newsies at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), and Freestyle Love Supreme back at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB). August is quieter, with just The Prom at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Lastly (for this look ahead), September brings Oklahoma the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Jagged Little Pill at Broadway in Hollywood (FB), although they are on the same day so I’ll be shifting one show. September may also bring Andrew Lippa’s version of The Wild Party at the Morgan Wixson Theatre. This was a show I had been planning to see before the COVID shutdown, so I’m putting it in the “part of our subscriptions” list. There may also be some Hollywood Bowl stuff, depending on how my wife is doing.
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, On Stage 411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget (although I know it is outdated and need to update it). Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country (again, I need to review this for the post-COVID theatre landscape)!