How to succeed in reviving a period piece without falling victim to that period’s pitfalls: Hire Chris Kelly to direct it.
That was the wise but so far only partially effective tack taken by MusicalFare Theatre for its kitsch-laden and impossibly high-spirited production of the old chestnut “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” which opened April 13.
The inventive musical comedy, starring P.J. Tighe in the role of shameless corporate climber J. Pierrepont Finch and an enormous supporting cast of musical theater pros young and old, is an etched-in-stone portrait of its time. Its story, many high school drama club members and parents may recall, concerns the social and sexual atmosphere of the mid-century corporate office.
It’s a place where the swirls of unbridled nepotism, unalloyed ambition and unrestrained chauvinism coalesce into an atmosphere that is either toxic or intoxicating – depending on your disposition and your gender.
There is no way to play “How to Succeed” straight in 2016. While many of its original elements are in fact tongue-in-cheek critiques of the dominant corporate culture and its neolithic attitudes toward women, the show’s soft-pedaled and borderline fawning treatment of the rampant sexism of the era would be tough to stomach without some kind of contemporary spin.
It needs to be approached with a certain attitude and from a certain angle, one that either tamps down its outdated if not brazenly sexist tropes or amplifies them almost to the point of kitsch. Take one guess as to which approach Kelly, the camp master whose work with Buffalo United Artists and other local companies has demonstrated an unwavering faith in the comedic power of exaggeration, has chosen.
Everything about Kelly’s production, from Kari Drozd’s retina-burning costumes to Robert Cooke’s out-of-control choreography, is turned up the like the contrast on an old TV set. The production filters Frank Loesser’s marvelous score and lyrics and the show’s clever book through the aesthetic sensibility of early-’90s’ Tim Burton, and infuses it with a comic sensibility closer to a Saturday morning cartoon than a Broadway musical. This is largely to the show’s advantage.
Tighe’s tentative if inventive portrayal of Finch – that’s “F-I-N-C-H,” as he frequently reminds his superiors – is oddly mechanized, like a creaking machine whose circuitry is on the verge of breaking down. What Tighe lacked in vocal ability, he tried to make up for with a kind of mildly neurotic earnestness, but I’m not sure he ever quite delivered on the comic potential of the character.
Unlike most of Kelly’s recent productions, this one seemed under-rehearsed on opening night. It has many moving pieces, which do not quite gracefully navigate the theater’s small stage.
What’s more, its performers did not seem universally agreed on the required kitsch level, with Matt Witten and Kevin Craig setting a high bar for comic outlandishness that others failed to sustain. And the score, which often whirred along at an appalling speed, sometimes seemed to get away from music director Theresa Quinn, translating into timing problems in the performances. A slightly slower tempo might help.
That said, there were plenty of moments throughout the opening performance when everything clicked, especially the unhinged madness that is the full-ensemble number “Coffee Break” and “Grand Old Ivy,” a charming and polished a comic duet featuring Tighe and a pitch-perfect Witten.
Kevin Craig, as the boss’s scheming nephew Bud Frump, commandeers your attention at every possible turn. As far as I’m concerned he’s the star of the show, capable of saving entire scenes with the raise of an eyebrow. Put him on a stage with fellow comic mastermind Brian Mysliwy (who just finished another buzzworthy run at the Irish Classical), and you could sell tickets for years.
Fine performances also come from Nicole Cimato as the cartoonishly daffy Hedy LaRue, Eric Rawski as the nervous yes-man Mr. Bratt and Katy Miner as the boss’s put-upon secretary Miss Jones.
There is no handbook for reviving a show like “How to Succeed,” so Kelly and company deserve plenty of credit for putting their own kitschy spin on this creaky classic. Unlike its protagonist, it is really trying - a little too visibly, at times. With a few more performances under its belt, it may eventually succeed.
2.5 stars (out of four)
Musical comedy playing through May 15. Tickets are $43. Call 839-8540 or visit musicalfare.com.