FringeReview UK 2023
This is certainly the best attempt yet to revive this musical with a new accent, and the way to see this musical. With such a company, see it anyway. It’ll prod you with questions and send you singing for answers.
Originally presented by Cy Feuer and Ernest H. Martin in association with Frank Productions.
Directed by Georgie Rankcom, Choreographer Alexzandra Sarmiento, Musical Director Natalie Pound, Set and Costume Designer Sophia Pardon, Lighting Designer Lucia Sanchez Roldan, Sound Designer Joshua Robins, Orchestrator Stuart Morley, Stage Manager Waverley Moran, Production manager Misha Mah, Casting Director Peter Noden, Producer/General Manager Jodee Conrad.
Till June 17th
Winner of a 1961 Tony and Pulitzer, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying a musical riff on the novel and film arrives at the Southwark Borough Large, till June 17th. It’s directed by Georgie Rankcom, who proves herself a superb singer taking a role at short notice.
With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, it’s based on the novel by Shepherd Mead. Whilst guying business and capitalist culture, it doesn’t truly subvert it. Thus infatuated Rosemary Pilkington (Allie Daniel replaced on this occasion by Rankcom with a fantastically characterful low mezzo) is “Happy to be ignored most of the time” and expresses it in the quite memorable ‘Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm’ as plangent as ‘I Believe In You’ when Finch scales the heights.
Though rethinking the musical in contemporary non-binary terms, it’s a production that promises to goes far in one direction – yet ends up remaining faithful to the original, dodgy ethos because the satire’s a bit saccharine, and you can’t help being pulled towards the happy end. Rankcom does all she can, and after seeing this I’d hate to revert to the original.
J Pierrepont Finch (Gabriele Friedman) has listened to the book, deliciously voiced as Voice of “The Book” by Michelle Visage, known for ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’. Emboldened, Finch tries to blag their way into a job, and Rosemary with her faithful, warm-hearted friend Smitty (Verity Power, warmly sung with edge and again, character) try to help them. But with the book to consult Finch doesn’t need help, immediately hitting on Mr Bert Bratt (Taylor Bradshaw, wonderfully confident, slightly outsize and in need of a big musical) to gain access to the boss.
This is J. B. Biggley (Olivier Award winning Tracie Bennett – Follies, Hangmen, Mame, Coronation Street). Bennett’s role is curiously muted: there’s little singing and in a grey pony-tail, her parodic role seems shrunk-fit around the normally glorious Bennett. Naturally Bennett is consummate, inhabits the role with a wiry, wary edge, though isn’t truly the lead here. Indeed the work’s essential charm is as an ensemble piece.
Musical Director Natalie Pound helms a punchy band where the music, reduced to a few telling instruments breathes as it never has in Stuart Morley’s pinpoint orchestrations, neatly enveloped in Joshua Robins’ sound: never too much. You hear every line.
For me it’s almost the star, though most attractive numbers aren’t quite memorable enough – even the ‘Coffee Break’ number – to stay in the memory. More importantly though this production points up the unacceptable sexism and nepotism. So the ensemble number ‘A Secretary Is Not a Toy”’ quite forward for 1961, unhappily still carries relevance.
Set and costume designer Sophia Pardon has gone for neon-bright symbolic ladders, and an uncluttered space with crates as building blocks, a desk or two, and a proto-psychadelic colour value beloved of some films around the turn of the 1960s. Naturally it works well, pulsing in this space, cradled in Lucia Sanchez Roldan’s lighting, switching and pinpointing as it does to these generic images.
Alexzandra Sarmiento’s choreography though scores in the many ensemble numbers and the way these slinky, boppy, slightly daft expressions underscore the tongue-in-cheek but never angry take on the corporate life.
Company man personified Mr Twimble (Danny Lane) head of Mail but promoted after 25 years, gets one of the finest songs ‘Company Way’ in unblinking, aggressive identification with whatever ethos the company decides on. He drinks the Kool-Aid, and like the Vicar of Bray, will still be in a lowly paid position when high-flyers are all sacked. Lane has a powerful baritone, and as Chair Mr Wolly Womper provides a dea ex machina.
On the way up, there’s always a place to bond, and with ‘Grand Old Ivy’ where Finch pretends to have gone to the same old second-division school as Biggley the duet between Bennett Friedman is infectious with energy.
Biggley’s two secrets are knitting (something Finch anticipates by taking it up, to eb be ‘discovered’ doing it) and… Hedy Larue (Annie Aitken) where with the vampy mistress wanting to be taken seriously as PA, we reach one of the great moments, worth the price of the ticket. Aitken is superb when unleashing her coloratura soprano in ‘The Pirate Dance’, all her sexy insinuations burnt off as she vocally emerges with such naked power and gleaming top-notes.
There’s excellence too in the envious nepo-baby, nephew of Biggley Bud Frump (Eliot Gooch), whose scheming goes all the way. A delicious part, Gooch gives it a nasty brattish edge too, vocally gleaming with malice.
Equally Miss Jones (Grace Kanyamibwa) forbidding secretary to Biggley is flattered when rose given by poor Rosemary to Finch are diverted by them to Jones to insinuate with the boss. It’s one of those moments where, despite all the redemption that finally happens (it’s hinted in the last Act One number ‘Rosemary’) you want to slap Finch, metaphorically.
Mr Milton Gatch (Milo McCarthy) is one of those eminence grise figures, partly sympathetic to Finch partly as even the initially warm Bratt is, becomes envious. McCarthy fines his tenor to the refined almost or nearly man.
Friedman is appealing and warm, though you wonder how this role could be played any different. Finch ruthlessly ignores Rosemary most of the time, and even in this production there’s not enough of redemptive moment to show quite how Finch realises they’re so mistaken. Or rather even when they sort of acknowledge Rosemary as a potential wife, Finch’s monomaniacal focus on power means even a kiss will take priapic energy better used to get ahead. It’s profoundly misogynistic, begs several questions, and I’m not quite sure Finch can be redeemed.
The musical redeems itself with big finishes like ‘The Brotherhood Of Man’ a rousing if slightly sugary number where Finch shows a kinder capitalism can infuse company values. That worked. Back then though, at least one could dream.
There’s so much to say about late capitalism and the way it’s exposed even in 1961, and how that echoes now. But the book and lyrics can’t afford to bite as hard as later musicals do, and however one reinvents it, it is as Rankcom says, a period piece.
This is certainly the best attempt yet to revive it with a new accent, though I wish I could have seen this company’s Anyone Can Whistle. But that’s Sondheim, and even in 1964, he heralded the great divide. But this is the way to see this musical. With such a company, see it anyway. It’ll prod you with questions and send you singing for answers.