How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at the Royal Festival Hall, London.
Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
Frank Loesser’s musical satire of self-help books and office politics enjoyed a one-night concert performance on London’s South Bank, courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and a truly stellar cast.
The 1961 show – based on Shepherd Mead’s 1952 novel of the same name – is a seven-time Tony winner, and earned Loesser and his book collaborators Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It must have been a slow year at the Pulitzer offices, as it’s not the most progressive or demanding of dramas, but How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying crackles with witty one-liners and undeniable toe-tappers. And when presented by a cast that includes Jonathan Groff, Cynthia Erivo, Anna-Jane Casey, Clive Rowe and Hannah Waddingham, it rises above most of what’s been gracing the London stage in recent years.
The story is a classic rags-to-riches tale. Lowly but ambitious window cleaner J. Pierrepont Finch (Groff) follows the instructions in the titular self-help manual and joins the World Wide Wicket Company. Guided by the voice of the book (Nicolas Colicos), he quickly charms his way up the corporate ladder, convincing the big boss J.B. Biggley (Clarke Peters) that he’s a real hot shot despite having no experience.
On the way, he falls for shy secretary Rosemary Pilkington (Erivo), while fighting off the advances of sultry secretary Hedy LaRue (Waddingham) and competing with Biggley’s nephew Bud Frump (Ashley Robinson).
American stage and screen star Groff was magnificent and ultra-confident as Finch, inhabiting the role completely, and charming the near-capacity Festival Hall audience as effectively as his character charms his colleagues. An actor we really need to see more of in the UK, Groff has a beautiful and characterful voice, and was clearly the brightest star in the evening’s constellation of bright stars – his performance effortless, natural and utterly, dare I say it again, charming. He really did seem to succeed without trying!
Erivo, too, can do no wrong and made for a delightful partner in Rosemary, even if she was way too qualified for the rather slight part. Catch her in everything she does, as you know you’re going to be in for a treat. Same goes for the hilarious Waddingham, back on stage after taking time out to start a family. Her camp turn as the ditzy blonde bombshell was a masterclass in comedy – and what a voice!
As if that holy trinity wasn’t enough, director Jonathan Butterell threw in Rowe (again, comedy gold), Peters, Robinson and Casey, and supported them all with a board-room’s worth of talent in the shape of Tom Coles, Ako Mitchell, Neil Ditt, Amy Ellen Richardson, Katie Kerr, Jenna Boyd, Carly Mercedes Dyer, John Barr, Christopher Doyle and Emily Bull.
One of the greatest joys of concert performances such as this is hearing a full-sized orchestra knocking out your favourite show tunes, and the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, guided by Mike Dixon, sounded fantastic as it served up Loesser’s infuriatingly catchy tunes. The songs – among them ‘Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm’, ‘Company Way’, ‘Paris Original’, ‘Rosemary’ and, best of all, ‘Brotherhood of Man’ – may not be instantly recognisable big hitters, but all have a delightful perkiness, with an evocative 1950s pops-orchestra vitality, and everyone left humming one or other of the big numbers.
Other than a few issues with the sound mix – the RFH is not the best venue for musical theatre – it was a delight to settle back and be indulged by the orchestra and cast.
So, a big thank you to all involved.
As delightful and witty and sweet as it is, though, I’d not be in a great rush to see this show again – I’m not that surprised that it’s never been back to London since its first and only run back in 1963. But I’d certainly be keen to see this calibre of talent working together. And come on, Jonathan, treatus to a longer stay in London next time!