To anyone convinced that government ought to be run like a business, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has arrived just in time to slap that silly idea right out of your skull. It does run like a business, and lord help us all.
As we hurtle willy-nilly into the depths of the national political season, we’ll be hearing that business trope a lot. Goodness, we even have a billionaire businessman leading the charge toward the ballot box, building his campaign on bluster, bullying, and the quaint notion that he’s a populist outsider crashing the gates of the establishment in the name of the people. And The Great Hairscape is nothing new. “After all, the chief business of the American people is business,” declared Calvin Coolidge, the man who presided over the giddy buildup to the Great Depression.
How To Succeed, which is playing through August 23 in a generally handsome and well-sung revival at Clackamas Repertory Theatre, sees things differently. A hit 1961 Broadway musical based on a best-selling 1952 satirical book written in his ample spare time by a successful and somewhat cynical Madison Avenue ad man, it declares a different truth about the modern corporate world: nobody’s in charge, the place is full of yes men, inertia and the covering of one’s posterior are the chief orders of the day, nobody in management knows the slightest thing about the actual product, and no amount of sucking up can be considered shameless if you want to rise to the top.
It’s not business itself that’s in question, mind you: wickets, we can rest assured, the manufacture and sale of which are the core concern of the corporate world of How To Succeed, are vital little doodads, and everyone should have a few spares stashed away in the old croquet set. The worm in the apple’s the ineptitude of the whole process. A bureaucracy, apparently, is a bureaucracy, whether it’s government or business, and the person who figures out how it doesn’t work can scramble to the top of the heap. Not that he or she will be able to do much of anything but sit up there, emperor of futility. But sitting there has its rewards. Dilbert for president!
Or J. Pierrepoint Finch, the eager-beaver hustler at the center of How To Succeed, whose dizzying two-week ascent from window washer to chairman of the board of World Wide Wicket Company is aided and abetted by his scrupulous attention to the advice of a business how-to book. That that’s the only thing he’s scrupulous toward is part of the comedy’s joke, and excellent preparation for a career in politics. The play ends with speculation about Pierrepoint and the U.S. presidency, a position that would trump even chairman of the board.
Jameson Tabor stars as Finch at Clackamas Rep, playing the little schemer like a knife with an ingratiating edge, and a demeanor that falls somewhere between Matthew Broderick (who starred in the 1995 Broadway revival) and a googly-eyed Don Knotts. Finchie’s supposed to be shallow and irritating: nobody notices, or minds, until it belatedly becomes clear that he’s aced almost everyone out.
How To Succeed is a period piece, very much of its Mad Men times, and there are things that go along with that beyond Alva Bradford’s sharp costumes and Chris Whitten’s art-deco, Miami-colored set. There are no persons of color darker than a light tan in the executive headquarters, and no women executives. The women are secretaries or bimbos or both, and even the most ambitious among them aspire to marry a successful executive and preside over a suburban household while their husbands go into the city to slay dragons every day. On the other hand, what’s old is new: the remnants of that idea are likely to pop up during this grueling presidential-nomination campaign, too. (Or have already: even Fox News woman broadcasters, it seems, will be put in their place if they get too uppity with their questions.)
It’s key to remember that How To Succeed, created by the Guys and Dolls team of composer Frank Loesser and writer Abe Burrows (with a couple of others), is a comedy and was never meant as an exposé of American business. As a new Broadway musical, it played to houses packed with people who worked at corporations like World Wide Wicket: the audience was in on the joke. Like all good satire, How To Succeed was only a slight stretch of a broadly perceived reality. The play dug deep into the weak spots of the corporate system, and laid out an extreme-case scenario of how to manipulate it, and it was funny because everyone knew that even if it wasn’t quite plausible, it was possible. Decades later, anyone who paid even an ounce of attention to the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 can see the seed of the disaster right here, planted with a song and a smirk and a dance.
Director Don Elias’s cast at Clackamas Rep is blessed with a solid crop of musical comediennes and reliable character actors. Cassi Q. Kohl as the secretary Rosemary, who falls at first glance for Finch and seems too smart to be so dumb, turns in yet another appealingly polished performance, as do Sidney Weir as her sidekick Smitty, Amanda Valley as super-efficient Miss Jones, and Teresa Renee as the bundle of trouble Hedy LaRue, who’d be the sadder but wiser girl except she’s not sad about a bit of it, and not so wise, either. Jon Quesenberry is a lightly and likably detestable villain as ineffectual mama’s-boy Bud Frump, nephew of the big boss Mr. Biggley (Mark Pierce); good comic turns also come from Britton Adams as Bratt, the personnel guy (these days he’d be “human resources”) and Tony Stroh in the dual roles of nibbly Mr. Trimble and brassy Wally Womper, chairman of the board.
How To Succeed is a clever play, but it’s dated in ways that Loesser and Burrows’ brilliant Guys and Dolls, which has the sophisticated structure of a Shakespeare comedy and the sass of a purely American style, isn’t. The songs are tuneful but, unlike the hit-fest score of Guys and Dolls, more efficient than memorable (the closest thing to a standard is probably I Believe in You). And even with all the rapid action – and, in this production, Megan Misslin’s energetic choreography that assures a constant flow of physical action – the story’s a little brittle; you might find yourself after a while checking in and out.
But not too much. In its own way, this is a classic American tale, too, if not quite a classic of American theater, and its time has circled back again. It’s not hard to imagine a ticket of J. Pierrepont Finch and Professor Harold Hill from The Music Man, though Finch might have to settle for the vice presidential slot. Prof Hill’s proven that if you’re brash enough, you don’t even need to know the territory. And that brand seems to be selling like hotcakes in the political marketplace these days.
How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying continues through August 23 at Clackamas Rep. Ticket and schedule information are here.
In a welcome trend, cabaret’s been popping up here and there in town lately, and Clackamas Rep has a good one lined up for Aug. 16. Singer and actress Meredith Kaye Clark will perform Joni Mitchell’s classic album Blue in a concert setting, accompanying herself on guitar and with Mont Chris Hubbard on piano. The same show sold out a trio of recent performances at Portland Center Stage. Info here.
Clackamas Rep will close its season September 10-October 4 with the Northwest premiere of One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s smash 2011 adaptation of Carlo Goldini’s 18th century farce The Servant of Two Masters. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival scored a massive hit in 2009 with its own freewheeling adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters. This material’s a potential gold mine.