When “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” played on Broadway in the 1960s, it was a biting satire of the business world of its day. It won the Pulitzer and seven Tony awards.
Remounted 40 years later, it’s a period piece that comes across as a spoof of its era. San Luis Obispo Little Theatre’s production of the manic musical is a slapstick showcase of some of the area’s fine young talent, acting, singing and dancing up a storm.
Much has changed in the workplace in four decades, but some things stay the same. The rampant sexism, taken for granted by women of the ’60s, would be sexual harassment today.
A woman’s dream of marrying her boss and living subservient in the suburbs with kids and a station wagon has changed somewhat.
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But the practice of toadying to the boss, now called the CEO, and the ambition to climb to the top still prevail. And an old, rich man’s pleasure with a sexy young mistress is still a given. It just gets more publicity now.
Most of the key players in this production weren’t even born when the show was popular on Broadway and later became a film. Director Natalia Berryman is a Cal Poly theater student, and the protagonists, played by Joe Ogren and Cody Pettit, are familiar young actors who have grown up on local stages.
Ogren, who was a cherubic sixth-grader in the Little Theatre’s “Secret Garden,” is now a lanky comic song-and-dance man headed for college. He plays J. Pierrepont Finch, a young window washer who follows instructions in a book with the show’s title.
He gets a job with the World Wide Wicket Company and, through clever and comic manipulations, works his way up the ladder. He cons the big boss, J.B. Biggley, and is conned into romance by Rosemary, a charming secretary. But Biggley’s nephew, Bud Frump, tries to stop Finch’s rise with sneaky tactics.
The roles are all played on the edge of comic melodrama. Ogren endows Finch with a mixture of sweetness and blind ambition. Pettit is excellent as the wily but clueless Frump. Ariana Shakibnia, a talented high school student and a fine singer, is charming as Rosemary. Blustery boss Biggley is played by Seth Blackburn, and Morgan Peters is a hoot as his voluptuous, air-headed paramour, Hedy Larue. All of the supporting actors are good as well.
Ogren and Pettit are fine dancers, as are the rest of the cast and members of the ensemble. Their talents have been nurtured by choreographer Suzy Miller, who has been responsible for developing a corps of young local dancers. Bob Fosse was involved in choreographing the original Broadway show, and Miller’s choreography reflects his distinctive style. The dancing in the second act is so good that it made me wish there had been more in the first act.
The costumes are a vital element in re-creating the era. Costume designer Donna Sellers has clothed the secretarial corps with colorful dresses of the time. Women of a certain age will recall the form-fitting sheath dresses (and the figures they clung to). In the dresses and heels, the young women in this show have the figures and legs to go with the look, and they wear wigs that represent the hairdos of the time.
The actors make their entrances and exits through elevator doors, and the set, designed by David Linfield, consists of desks that are rearranged between scenes. The frequency of the shuffling of desks is a bit distracting.
Music and lyrics are by Frank Loesser, and the songs, like “A Secretary Is Not a Toy” and “The Company Way,” are integral to the action, but not memorable. The only one that has endured is “I Believe in You,” which Finch sings to himself in the mirror. Stephen Tosh is music director.
This is a comic show, nostalgic for some, fueled with young energy and talent.