A cheery revival for 'How to Succeed' Review: Grown-up Ralph Macchio charms as this updated '61 Pulitzer Prize musical opens a national tour here.

May 31, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The star of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" has to be able to do more than just sing and dance. Most of all, he has to be able to charm the audience -- seemingly without really trying.

Ralph Macchio -- best known from the "Karate Kid" movies -- is a whiz at this.

Every now and then, after his character, ex-window washer J. Pierrepont Finch, has climbed another rung on the corporate ladder, the lights go down except for a spotlight on Macchio.

Tilting his head, he looks out at the audience with a complicitous smirk that is as endearing as it is smug.

So, despite backstabbing and half-lying his way to the top, Macchio's Finch wins us over, as does this entire cheery revival, which has opened its national tour at the Mechanic Theatre.

In addition to Macchio's performance, much of that winning spirit is due to the same direction (by Des McAnuff), choreography (Wayne Cilento), Crayola-colored sets (designed by John Arnone) and costumes (Susan Hilferty), lighting (Howell Binkley) and video projections (Batwin + Robin) that have kept the Broadway version running well into its second year.

These folks have tweaked this 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical -- score by Frank Loesser, book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert -- just enough to acknowledge that, yes, it's a period piece, but in the interim we've learned a few lessons about such issues as sexual harassment and feminism.

Consider the blatantly sexist, "A Secretary is Not a Toy." Admittedly, this was originally intended as a satire -- as is the whole show.

But now, when the number ends, the secretaries are not only lording it over their bosses, the bosses are literally on their knees, slaving away on matching IBM Selectrics.

And though the final number, "Brotherhood of Man," begins with Finch leading his fellow execs in song, that song is taken over by the secretary to the company president. Repeating her Broadway role, scat-talking Tina Fabrique turns Finch's pep rally into a rousing revival meeting.

Considering these adjustments to the original, it seems surprising that Finch's love interest, a secretary named Rosemary, is played by Shauna Hicks as a pure throwback -- a woman whose goal in life is to hook a husband.

Hicks has a lovely voice and a perky manner reminiscent of Mary Tyler Moore, but her delivery of "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" lacks the edge that would alert us that there's more to Rosemary than a desire to, as the lyric goes, "bask in the glow of his perfectly understandable neglect." Instead, the videos of cartoon-like tract houses that accompany this song provide the only hint that it may be tongue in cheek.

The projections -- a computer-age contribution to a show set in the pre-computer era -- heighten the comedy in scene after scene.

DTC When Finch and Rosemary kiss for the first time, projections of fireworks explode behind them.

And, in one of Cilento's most comically choreographed numbers, "Coffee Break," a blimp advertising coffee sails by the office as the denizens inside go into caffeine-deprived jitters at the discovery that the coffee urn is empty.

Besides Macchio -- who has a nice, loose-limbed dancing style and a serviceable voice -- the production features notable performances by crooning Michael Cone, double cast as head of the mailroom and chairman of the board; Pamela Blair as the company president's blonde bombshell mistress; and especially Roger Bart as the president's nephew, Bud Frump, a slump-shouldered villain whose conniving tactics, truth be known, aren't much different from Finch's.

What distinguishes Finch is style.

Frump is, well, his name says it all. Finch is equally manipulative and self-promoting, but he also has charisma, boyishness and the gift of gab -- traits Macchio exploits to the fullest. In the final scene, Finch has his eye on the White House.

And particularly in this election year, you have to admit that while corporate America may have changed since "How to Succeed" debuted, the political arena is still a haven for Finches.

'How to Succeed in Business'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays. Through June 9

Tickets: $32.50-$57.50

$ Call: (410) 625-1400

Pub Date: 5/31/96

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