As long as office politics and workplace romance threaten employees’ rise to the top, there’ll always be an appetite for 1961’s Pulitzer honoree tuner, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” now receiving an uneven but largely jolly staging at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse. Reprise’s revival boasts an unusually well-sung rendition of Frank Loesser’s brilliant score and a sensational lead performance.
Josh Grisetti was to have toplined Gotham’s abortive “Broadway Bound” revival this season, but Neil Simon’s loss is L.A.’s considerable gain. As Finch, the young window washer on the corporate make, the lanky, likable thesp is impossible not to root for, no mean feat given the character’s potentially insufferable monomania. Grisetti’s boundless charm and sincerity redeem Finch’s naked ambition, complemented by physical grace and effortless comic timing.
An ideal pairing with ingenue Nicole Parker smooths over potential rough spots. Soulmate Rosemary is a generally thankless role, rarely receiving the attention of a one-time Broadway Elphaba from “Wicked.” Here, thesps’ chemistry helps one overlook his absent-minded neglect and her uncomfortably retro anthem “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm”; in every sense, Grisetti and Parker make beautiful music together.
Helmer Marcia Milgrom Dodge (current Tony nominee for “Ragtime”) eschews La Jolla and Gotham’s 1995 half-hearted updating. Even Bradley Kaye’s tacky but colorful latticework set sends an instant message: We’re playing this as a 1960s cartoon, all the blithely sexist stops pulled out, like it or lump it. And notwithstanding the beehive hairdos and Kate Bergh’s smart tailoring, the mood is more Mad Magazine than “Mad Men.”
Some thesps know how to succeed without really trying too hard, notably John O’Hurley’s daffily put-upon CEO and Michael Kostroff’s cagily servile company man. Melissa Fahn channels Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont from “Singin’ in the Rain,” a pretty sage approach to va-va-voom Hedy LaRue. She is priceless.
Yet too much biz goes over the top, with a little of Ray Wills’ obnoxious speech impediment going a long way. And the bottom falls out of the narrative with Simon Helberg’s repulsive Bud Frump, whose near-autistic shenanigans (on a scooter, yet) couldn’t possibly pose a serious threat to Finch.
One has to question Dodge’s taste here, as well as in the scenes leading to the climactic “Brotherhood of Man” number. The mob attack on corporate HQ looks like streaming toilet paper, after which we lose the essential satiric point of a gaggle of execs harmonizing about humanity while sending someone (anyone!) to the wolves.
Still, Darryl Archibald’s tireless baton directs the cast to do full justice to Loesser’s soaring tunes and impossibly witty lyrics in this, the master’s centennial year. (Remember how he taught us that a secretary is not a toy: “When you put her to use/Observe that you don’t find the name ‘Lionel’ on her caboose.”)
Next order of business should be a revival of Loesser’s “Where’s Charley?,” now that Grisetti has come along as a new generation’s Ray Bolger.