When it premiered in 1961, the musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” was a humorous look at a changing American workplace. With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert (based on Shepherd Mead’s satirical self-help book of the same name), “How to Succeed” took on the social and sexual mores of a post-War United States where economic prosperity led to the creation of a white middle class.
Summer Stock Austin’s new production of “How to Succeed” (playing through Aug. 10 in the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center) is a testament to the ways in which the show both has and has not aged gracefully. Though much of the text is painfully outdated in the era of Me Too, even as satire, the exuberant young cast keeps it good-natured enough to provide a charming evening of entertainment.
“How to Succeed” follows an eager young go-getter named J. Pierrepont Finch, who rapidly rises through the ranks of the World Wide Wicket Company from window washer to executive. Along the way he encounters several co-workers out to stab him in the back (and vice versa), an outsized, boisterous company president in the midst of a torrid affair, and the sweet, beguiling secretary Rosemary Pilkington, who is out to net him as a husband just as much as he is out to net a high-powered career.
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As one might suspect from such a description, the sexual politics on display in “How to Succeed” are distinctly dated, and though the musical won the Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Book as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, its story has not aged particularly well. Fortunately, Loesser’s score does retain its charm, and the cast of Summer Stock Austin’s production — consisting of some of the most talented high school and college students from across the country — imbues their production with a patina of innocence that overrides the skewed worldview.
Director/choreographer Ginger Morris has done a good job recreating the hustle and bustle of a big city office building, complete with a platformed scenic design (created by Ia Enstarä) to create the sensibility of a skyscraper. Within this milieu, the enthusiastic ensemble scampers, led by Tristan Tierney’s brimming-over-with-charm portrayal of J. Pierrepont Finch. Holden Fox’s paunchy, cantankerous J.B. Biggley (president of the company) is also a standout, as is the manically villainous take on Finch’s rival, Bud Frump, by Evan Vines, who combines a bullying mean-spiritedness with the sensibility of a whining schoolboy for delightfully comic effect.
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It is the young women in this production, though, who frequently steal the show. Maddie Reese as Rosemary and Morgan Prentiss as her friend, Smitty, are delightful comic performers who bring a sense of wit and whimsy to the roles that helps them rise above their limited characterization in the script. They particularly shine in their scenes together, where we get fleeting glimpses of a Lucy/Ethel dynamic that is as brilliant as it is brief.
Ultimately, although the book of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” isn’t as ageless as the works of Rogers & Hammerstein or Stephen Sondheim, Summer Stock Austin’s production has found the fun within the text that makes for a thoroughly pleasurable show full of memorable tunes and memorably wacky performances.