Riverside Theatre’s ‘How to Succeed’ still funny 50 years later

Who’d have thought a nitwit, a bimbo, a braggart and a big shot could set up a classist conundrum of morality. Not quite? Then how about a Broadway play, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” a 1961 musical based on a satirical handbook written a decade earlier.

The loftier premise of the play is that the corporate workplace is a bastion of B.S., where conniving worms can wriggle their way to the top without regard to ethics or even a solid C.V.

The reality is that watching a lowly laborer unzip his blue-collar coveralls to prove he can be a suit with the best of them can be fun to watch, especially with a bevy of secretaries tossed in for decoration (and no, an executive assistant is NOT a toy.)

No doubt the Vero audience for Riverside Theatre’s season finale has a disproportionately high number of retired CEOs, some of whom may have actually been climbing the corporate ladder when “How to Succeed” first opened. And maybe a few wives were witness too, if not women in that (god-awful) workforce.

And so, the great songwriter Frank Loesser (whose son John speaks about the play in this issue) gives us Finch, a window washer heading up the scaffold, distracted not by a cell phone but an actual book, a handbook on corporate success, egging him on with empowering slogans like “You can!”

Finch enters the headquarters of World Wide Wicket and fortuitously bumps into the boss, Mr. Biggley. Finch quickly parlays the run-in as a sign of a close personal connection, and wows his way into the mailroom while a cute secretary, Rosemary, looks on dreamy-eyed.

Meanwhile, Biggley’s secretary, the va-voomy Hedy LaRue, sets off high jinks that are high-risk to Biggley’s marriage.

Enter Biggley’s annoying nephew, Bud Frump, who flaunts his sense of entitlement at every turn.

Unfortunately for Frump, at every turn, Finch has his guide book, and clues the audience in – with the help of a spot – to the light bulb going off in his head. Miraculously he makes it to the top.

“How to Succeed” is shot through with satire, though the humor has somewhat deflated over the course of half a century. So much has changed in the corporate world that even a straight depiction of the era would probably be funny enough. (Working 40 hours a week? Lunch hours with martinis? How about women getting married so they don’t have to work? Hahahaha.)

The huge hit TV series “Mad Men,” set in the same era, hasn’t hurt “How to Succeed”‘s recent successes, including a 2011 revival with Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame.

What the Riverside’s show delivers best is a cohesive, effervescent cast, tight timing, flawless set and staging and chemistry between the characters, if not exactly heat. Beefing up the machismo/bimbo dichotomy might have amped that up a little, and set up sharper satire – and a thicker EEOC file.

A co-production between Riverside Theatre and Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, the show runs through April 27, then heads north for a summer run. Call 231-6990 for tickets or go to www.riversidetheatre.com.

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