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Review: PHAMALY Tries Too Hard to Update “How To…”

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a classic satirical musical comedy. Originally written in 1962, it follows the plight of J. Pierpont Finch on his rise to success in the World Wide Wicket Company. This staple of the American musical theatre cannon was Tony nominated, adapted for the silver screen, revived in 1995 to rave reviews, and is has received considerable attention this year for the current Broadway revival starring Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter, Equus).

PHAMALY Tailors Script With Major Alterations

HE SAID: Regular PHAMALY audience members know that the company is no stranger to slightly tweaking the material of their productions to better incorporate the disabilities of their cast. With last year’s production of Beauty and the Beast, the story was shifted to incorporate the young prince being blind. In this year’s production of How to Succeed… the World Wide Wicket Company was changed to be the World Wide Wheelchair Company.  However, this year the changes didn’t just stop there. “Coffee Break” was extended, “I Believe in You” was turned into a duet between Rosemary and Finch, the opening song of the second act was cut entirely, specific jokes like Finch’s look to the audience when he has an idea were eliminated, and one role swapped genders. While some of the changes were interesting, I found myself mostly feeling a bit jarred, because you really only see that many changes when there is an official Broadway revival.

SHE SAID:  I’m not quite as familiar with the show as you are, so I’m not sure how many of the changes I would have noticed on my own. The change to the wheelchair company, while appropriate for PHAMALY, actually diluted the overall message of the piece for me.  It’s easy to hate the World Wide Wicket company, because they make an undefined and presumably useless product, and so the satirical message that corporations make a habit of disbursing responsibility, and not doing much good in the world, is crystal clear. But part of me wanted to root for the executives at the wheelchair company, since that is a legitimate, productive, socially responsible business. I actually found the “I Believe in You” duet to make Rosemary a slightly more interesting character, but what it purchased for her was charged to Finch’s character, so it ended up a wash for me.

Corporate Satire Somewhat Softened

HE SAID: That was definitely one of the interesting choices. Jenna Bainbridge (Rosemary) has a beautiful voice and the choice did add a sense of real love to a character that might otherwise seem like she is superficially infatuated. But it didn’t add any new understanding of the reciprocal relationship or the actual moment that the song is intended for. “Coffee Break” was extended partly to incorporate the use of Sign Language – a move which successfully emphasized the addiction to coffee, but it added too much length, and dragged a bit. Cutting the opening to act two, (“Cinderella Darling”or “How to…reprise” depending on the version), I’m guessing was done to back off the sexism of the piece, which is an inherent part of the satire. From what I understood of Steve Wilson’s director’s note, all of the changes seem to stem from his desire to avoid criticism of the most recent Broadway revival of the piece. For me, these goals were in conflict at times with the nature of the piece and missed the point of the story instead of truly defining a new point.

SHE SAID: I agree that overall the changes were more of the type that derailed the original message of the show than those that just highlighted features in the script in a new and creative way, which I’ve come to expect from PHAMALY. For most audience members, I don’t think it’ll largely impact their experience, but for real lovers of the show, it’s not quite a match made in heaven. The design elements were as solid as always, with details I appreciated, like the trapezoidal shape of the desks to echo the shape of the voms and fit into different configurations (scenic design by M. Curtis Grittner).  I also especially appreciated the intricate, unique look of the “Paris Original” featured at the end of Act 1 (costume design by Linda Morken).

Strong Performances Sometimes Large for Intimate ‘Space’

HE SAID:  But, putting the directorial choices that altered the show aside, the cast’s performances were lovely. In fact, I found the women of the show really stole it for me – which is unusual considering it heavily relies on a few male roles. As mentioned before, Jenna Bainbridge was fantastic – both in her voice and performance. Kathi Wood as Smitty had a bit more attitude than I have ever seen on the character and I loved it. Lastly, Lyndsay Giraldi-Palmer as Hedy was delightfully ditzy, but perhaps a bit too wrapped up in the character voice at times.

SHE SAID: I agree that if one of Wilson’s goals was to feature the women, that was handily accomplished. I also really enjoyed Bainbridge’s performance as Rosemary, she was traditionally pleasing and just a bit firey, which I liked. I did also really enjoy Mark Dissette as J.P. Biggley. Daniel Traylor as Bud Frump had several moments of pure physical comedic genius, although his character was a bit too large for the intimate space at other moments. On the other side of the spectrum, Jeremy Palmer as Finch did a fine job with the role, but I wished I saw a few more moments of bigger, bolder sparkle in his performance.

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Changes Detract From Wonderful Performances

THEY SAID: It’s true that when this musical won its Pulitzer Prize, we lived in a different time. For that reason, a lot of people find that it is kind of dated. But the latest Broadway revival embraced the period of the piece and still won Tony Awards. The piece works because the satire of the corporate world is smart and witty. Had the changes in this production been left at the World Wide Wheelchair Company and adding sign language to “Coffee Break”, we would understand because that is PHAMALY doing what they do best – showcasing their abilities. But the large amount of altered or cut moments in the show was unsettling to us because they didn’t fully refocus the message or the show or emphasize an original message. Unfortunately, those aspects mostly overshadowed the mostly wonderful performances happening on the stage.

For a plot synopsis of How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, see the wikipedia article.  How to Succeed… presented by PHAMALY plays through August 7 at the Space Theater in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Click the banner above for tickets and more information.


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