Sing a song of success
Musical comedy about corporate America is a welcome throwback
With the apparent Trump-era regression to a mind-warping miasma of 1950s high-minded personal morality and amoral business ethics, it’s nice to be reminded that there were also smart, funny people during that era who saw—and mocked—the hypocrisy inherent in that juxtaposition of values. Shepherd Mead’s 1952 satirical self-help guide, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, is based on his real-life rise from mail-room clerk to vice president of an advertising firm. It was adapted for the musical stage and hit the Broadway boards in 1961, winning seven Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
For its spring musical, the Chico State Department of Music and Theatre is producing a lavishly staged version of the show in Laxson Auditorium, one that’s worthy of its lineage. The show is directed by assistant professor Matthew Miller, and during a recent dress rehearsal, his production, with intricate stagecraft combined with beguiling student talent, brought the story to life.
The axis of the play is J. Pierrepont Finch (played by Mickey Layson), whose meteoric rise from window washer to chairman of the board of World Wide Wickets is fueled by his adhesion to the advice he gains from reading the eponymous book. Layson inhabits the young up-and-comer with exuberant energy and good humor, making Finch’s seemingly paradoxical blend of shrewdness and naivete believable, exasperating and funny as he manipulates events for his own benefit.
Finch’s foil is Bud Frump (Bryan Eid), the conniving nephew of the company’s bombastic owner, J. B. Biggley (Louis Fuentes); and his often-thwarted romantic interest is a cagey but pure-hearted young secretary, Rosemary Pilkington (Hannah Naiditch), who somewhat inexplicably falls in love with Finch at first sight. The shenanigans of this trio involve everyone in the corporate structure and allow the musical to playfully explore all manner of office politics, as well as poignantly—with good humor—examine romantic allegiances, longings and coercions.
In the coercion department, Hedy LaRue (Lacy Stephens) takes the cake. A stereotypical blonde beauty installed as a secretary by sugardaddy Biggley, Hedy is the embodiment of the amoral gold-digger. She “innocently” reduces every male in the office to a state of drooling but guiltily repressed lust, as expressed in the song, “A Secretary Is Not a Toy.”
Counterbalancing Hedy’s raw sex appeal, Rosemary illustrates the 1950s-era conundrum of pre-women’s liberation courtship strategies. Naiditch gives the role a full-voiced commitment, balancing romantic longing and realistic foreboding in the song “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm.” Rosemary’s pal and matchmaking collaborator, Smitty (Brittney Nusbaum), adds down-to-earth humor to the goings-on, and Nusbaum is perfectly cast as the sidekick who might steal a scene or two.
And speaking of scene-stealers, Eids’ Bud is a caustic blast of physical gesticulation and vocal inflection worthy of the role.
The intricate set—consisting of sliding panels that transform from office to elevator bank to secretarial pool thanks to cunning shifts in lighting—is impressive. Add to that costumes that capture the ’50s vibe with colorful women’s dresses and drab charcoal suits for the men, exuberant young players and a spot-on live orchestra, and the musical looks to be a rousing success.