Long titles were quite the winning formula when the Tony Awards for best musical were handed out in 1962 and 1963. Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows took the statuettes in '62 for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying before Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shrevelove shouldered the hardware the following year with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Watching How to Succeed in the new CPCC Theatre production at Halton Theatre, I discovered the two musicals have something else in common: a rather leeringly sexist song in Act 1. For those of you who remember "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" from the more frequently revived Funny Thing, "A Secretary Is Not a Toy" will strike a familiar chord.
Of course, the backwardness of Sondheim's song is to be expected, since his musical is adapted from comedies written by Plautus 2,200 years ago during the Roman Empire. All his salivating men are draped in togas. Burrows' book hearkens back no further than 1952, when Shepherd Mead published his mock self-help manual, subtitling it "The dastard's guide to fame and fortune." So, the patriarchs in this ensemble are all in business suits, all cautioning with wavering resolve against a lengthy catalogue of improprieties with secretaries that can get you fired.
"A secretary," Loesser has the execs tell us, "is not a pet nor an Erector Set." That's about as far as you dared to go on a Broadway stage in 1961 when How to Succeed opened.
Director Tom Hollis pulls the dated and piggish aspects of the musical further from the brink of being downright offensive by giving extra emphasis to the buffoonery of all the execs at World Wide Wickets. That's the company where our hero, unemployed window washer J. Pierrepont Finch, climbs to the lofty position of chairman of the board within the space of a week.
Except for the buxom Hedy LaRue, CEO J.B. Biggley's paramour, no woman employed at WWW aspires to any post higher than executive secretary. The most extravagant ambition in the stenographic and secretarial pools is to marry one of the execs. Dusting off this old chestnut, Hollis must also add some steel to the women, most notably Finch's admirer, Rosemary Pilkington, who is spooning "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" less than five minutes after the newcomer walks through the door.
In her Charlotte debut, Amanda Becker is challenged with singing — and later on, repeating — this cringe-worthy ballad. Here Becker steers Rosemary toward Mary Richards, but more often in her frustrated pursuit of her beloved Ponty, she veers toward Lucy Ricardo, quick to pout and comically gripe. What ultimately elevates Rosemary above the ordinary is her willingness to belong to Ponty even if he must return to washing windows. Her repeat of Ponty's "I Believe in You" is deep and absolute, whereas the clever opportunist had sung it into a bathroom mirror.
Ah, but Rosemary doesn't believe that much in herself, pouring all her initiative into pursuing Ponty. Hank Santos triumphs over a different set of challenges as her overachieving ideal. He's brash, precocious, daring and cunning. Yet Santos retains the sheen of youthful inexperience as Finch, and he credibly surrenders to the voice of his guidebook (the disembodied Mike Collins) in his meteoric climb up the corporate ladder. We can never equate this Mickey Rooney with Machiavelli.
Immediately after the overture, when Hollis lowers him from the flyloft to sing the title song, Santos' diligence as a student of his guidebook deflects any inclination we might have to see him as conceited. Ponty's disregard for Rosemary stems more from his high-energy embrace of careerism than from her utter lack of useful ideas. He proves his aptitude for corporate infighting and politics by thinking well on his feet, abstaining from the temptations presented by Hedy not out of loyalty to Rosemary but because he shrewdly calculates the repercussions if CEO Biggley ever found them out.
Santos also plays well to us, freezing on cue with a toothpaste smile at key moments in his march to the top.
Hedy is trouble in a tight dress from the first moment we see her, and Corinne Littlefield certainly isn't toning down the bombshell's appeal. Neither is Hollis, getting Littlefield to show us plenty of leg. But even though she winds up in a pirate costume and spoils Finch's advertising scheme out of sheer stupidity, we come around to liking Littlefield as Hedy — probably because, in her audacity and plain-spokenness, she ultimately reminds us of the Dolly Parton character in 9 to 5.
You can take your cues from costume designer Jamey Varnadore in finding where How to Succeed truly hits its stride. Like many a pair of romantic leads, Finch and Rosemary are continuously blah on the clothes rack. Aside from Hedy, who drops down to just a towel between the tight dress and her scanty pirate stint, Varnadore goes to town with Biggley when the CEO dresses for golf and in the presentation of Bud Frump, Biggley's layabout, pesky, tattling, demonstrative, blackmailing and backstabbing nephew. Bud is not one for standard business attire.
The performances are equally tasteless and over-the-top. Steven B. Martin is the model of the henpecked tyrant as Biggley, all the more eccentric and vacillating because we never see his wife. When he isn't taking calls from the missus, we're treated over and over to J.B.'s knee-buckling response to Hedy. Because he doesn't lift Ponty to the top as his uncle does, Dennis Breuer can be utterly repellent and detestable as Frump — as long as he remains pure weasel in his Charlotte debut. Breuer seems to have given Charles Nelson Reilly and Jerry Lewis intensive study in combining Frump's grating nasality with absolutely juvenile demonstrations of joy and despair, depending on how his scheme du jour is going. Delightful.
The whole production truly overachieves. The Halton Theater sound system performed without a blemish for once, and James Duke outdid himself in his imposingly tall set design for World Wide Wickets. Hollis has a couple of his cast members flying to show off that height, bookending this handsome production with a couple of high-flying feats. I've already divulged Ponty's airborne entrance, but I'm keeping mum on the finale.