HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING at the Southwark Playhouse
“a highly intelligent musical that lampoons modern ideas of success and ambition”
Just over sixty years ago the musical satire, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” took Broadway by storm, winning eight Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for best drama. Based on Shepherd Mead’s semi-autobiographical, humorous novel of the same name, it charts the rapid rise of J. Pierrepont Finch up the corporate ladder as he pursues his American Dream. It is inevitable that the office politics and gender assumptions are going to struggle to stand the test of time, but Georgie Rankcom’s exuberant and dynamic staging dismisses any reservations we might have with sheer razzmatazz and inventive risk-taking in the personnel department.
Gender blind casting is nothing new. In fact, it has become a bit of a paradox: the choices these days are nearly always far too deliberate to have been taken ‘blindly’. Discussion aside, it might not always work. But in this case, it adds an essential twist – and much needed sympathy for the principal, self-obsessed characters. Gabrielle Friedman, as the scheming and deceiving Finch, is an endearing mix of opportunism, cynicism and self-deprecation; played with a twinkle as bright as their comic asides are subtle. We can’t fail to be on their side as Finch cheats, lies and manipulates his way to the top. Already at the top is the misanthropic, misogynist company boss, J. B. Biggley. Tracie Bennett grabs the role by the horns and wrestles it into a loveable beast of burlesque parody.
Everything works wonders. And it is refreshing to see that the book and lyrics are an unashamed joke, shared by performers and audience alike. You don’t need a manual to instruct you not to take this too seriously. Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert’s book is charged with shocking wit and pertinent observation, while Frank Loesser’s music and lyrics elevate the piece with a captivating score and libretto. But that’s a sure thing. The real success lies in the staging. Alexzandra Sarmiento’s choreography is as sharp as any knife used by these back-stabbing individuals.
But the acerbity is softened by vulnerability and sensitivity. Allie Daniel in particular, as Finch’s love interest, gives a stunning performance as Rosemary Pilkington, the secretary who yearns for his neglect and would just be “happy to keep his dinner warm”. Daniel embodies comic genius and vocal virtuosity in a powerhouse of a performance. Her comic timing is matched by Elliot Gooch, who deliciously struts with camp abandon as Biggley’s nepotistic nephew intent on revenge. The quality of the singing cuts across the board, each voice given their moment in Loesser’s uplifting score which allows the characterisation to shine through. Grace Kanyamibwa comes into her own during the number ‘Brotherhood of Man’; an uplifting mix of scat and gospel. Nobody steals the limelight as solos merge into duets, into rousing company ensembles. Bennett’s finely tuned, gravelly tones blend lushly in ‘Love from a Heart of Gold’ with the operatic cadences of Annie Aitken, Biggley’s mis-appointed mistress and secretary. Verity Power, Milo McCarthy, Danny Lane, Taylor Bradshaw all stand out, and fall back in line again in what is probably one of the most generous and joyous companies on the London stage.
This is a highly intelligent musical that lampoons modern ideas of success and ambition, and not so modern ideas of a women’s place in the workforce, and old-school mentality. It does so with affection, not for the culprits but for the victims. ‘A Secretary Is Not a Toy’ is simultaneously behind, and ahead, of its time in this production. The aching duet ‘Rosemary’ is timeless, and beautiful. And the humour of the piece is brought out in ‘Coffee Break’, ‘Been a Long Day’ and ‘Paris Original’.
Finch may have used a how-to manual to reach success. Alas, in reality there is no handbook available to create a successful musical. But clearly this company doesn’t need one. The success of this show is pretty much guaranteed. Anyone can see that – without really trying.
Reviewed on 16th May 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Pamela Raith
Previously reviewed at this venue: