You don’t need a self-help book to figure out how to revive Frank Loesser’s dated but worthy 1961 musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. All you really need is Daniel Radcliffe, the 21-year-old coiled spring of energy who manages to embody the ethos of corporate-ladder-climbing opportunist J. Pierpont Finch with a winning combination of youth, talent, and sheer willpower.
The star of the blockbuster Harry Potter films is at least a decade younger than Broadway’s previous Finches — Robert Morse, now seen on the aptly synchronous ‘60-era series Mad Men, and Matthew Broderick, who headed the 1995 revival. And Radcliffe’s comparative innocence goes a long way toward softening Finch’s edge, or at least accounting for his somewhat callous behavior as he rises through the ranks of the World Wide Wicket Company from window-washer to mailroom clerk to executive.
In fact, it’s hard to unravel where Finch ends and Radcliffe begins, so thoroughly do the two seem to be entwined in this triumphant performance. On the surface, the British actor — with his squat, compact body and somewhat pasty complexion — seems an unlikely leading man. Though he has a stronger singing voice than Broderick and a limber, go-for-it approach to director Rob Ashford’s exhaustingly acrobatic choreography, he’s not a natural, effortless triple threat. But like Finch, he seems to be tapping into an almost bottomless reserve of willpower and determination to claim his place in the spotlight of a big-budget Broadway musical. Your eyes keep being drawn to him, even if he always lets you see him sweat.
And he certainly works up a sweat on some of the most athletic production numbers I’ve seen on stage in years, particularly the football-themed ”Grand Old Ivy” and the Act 2 showstopper ”Brotherhood of Man.” The latter places Radcliffe front and center as the well-toned ensemble leaps, thrusts, spins, and stretches with joyous abandon — all while singing one of Loesser’s catchiest melodies. I wished I had a remote control to replay the entire song from the top. Over and over again.
Of course, Radcliffe isn’t alone on stage. John Laroquette is an inspired choice to play World Wide Wicket’s philandering, easily distracted president, and Tammy Blanchard wins plenty of laughs as his va-va-voom mistress. Sweet-voiced Rose Hemingway is button-cute as Finch’s love interest, though she never quite manages to connect as a leading lady. Of course, it doesn’t help that her character is a pre-feminist office worker who aspires to wed Finch and move to the suburbs where, she sings, she’d be ”happy to keep his dinner warm.”
When the datedness of the show is most pronounced, in fact, the energy tends to flag. It’s hard to pull off a number like ”A Secretary Is Not a Toy” in 2011, no matter how spiffy the choreography or colorful the set. (Derek McLane’s scenic design, with its reliance on modish geometric patterns and colored panels, seems to borrow heavily from the look of of recent ’60s revivals such as last season’s Bye Bye Birdie and Ashford’s own Promises, Promises.) And regrettably, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper’s blandly understated voiceover seems less like inspired stunt casting than a missed opportunity.
But when Radcliffe is on stage, which is much of the time, How to Succeed perks to life with the bundled dynamism of a born performer and a serious striver for the spotlight. Naked ambition has seldom been so appealing. A-
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800+432-7250)
More on How to Succeed… on Broadway from EW:
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with Daniel Radcliffe: EW exclusive pics!