Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Show Goes On! – Maltz’s Streaming Production of ‘How to Succeed in Business’

Dance number from Maltz's production of How To Succeed in Business

Here I thought my days as a reviewer would be on a long hiatus but as a Maltz subscriber we were invited to see a streaming version of their about-to-open musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying by Frank Loesser.  As the show was already scheduled to go into previews but had to be postponed, instead the musical was staged with a four-camera setup, and a skeletal audience (presumably mostly Maltz staff) “giving patrons a thrilling and unique perspective of the musical just as it was performed.” While this limited streaming event ends March 29, the show itself will be rescheduled and all ticket holders will be given the opportunity of seeing it live.

Although we have seen “live” performances of musicals on TV, quite recently PBS’ repeat broadcast of the enjoyable 2015 English version of Sound of Music, this is my first attempt to review a streamed show.  Streaming may be part of the permanent future of the theatre, not that it will shut the doors of live performances – it never will – but I’m all in favor of streaming the productions of regional theatres on a pay per view basis, giving us the opportunity to see regional performances we cannot otherwise attend. But there are complicated permissions and union arrangements to make that happen.  Credit goes to Maltz for solving those obstacles on short notice, albeit for limited distribution.

The COVID-19 crisis is going to change everything, permanently, perhaps some of it for the better, such as streaming of regional production as suggested above.  But societal change, especially in its attitudes towards work and sexism, was already well underway.  

One of the most changed environments already is indeed the office.  The Maltz production is a classic Frank Loesser musical which satirizes office life in the 1960s.  Office life doesn’t quite exist that way anymore but it is still an intense social environment.  COVID-19, and the resulting quick adaption of companies having many of their office employees work from home, is going to make further inroads into what once occupied most of our working hours.

'Coffee Break' from How to Succeed in Business
So, it is ironic that rather than seeing and poking fun at the office of the past, on a live stage, we can now watch live stage in the comfort of our homes. Which brings up another interesting topic, how different is it from a filmed version?  The answer to that question could probably fill a book, but a filmed version endeavors to capture verisimilitude, whereas the taping of a stage version has all the earmarks of live theatre other than that important missing link of the interaction between actors and the audience, one feeding off the other.  In other words, bring me live theatre any day BUT when that is impossible, bring me streaming.

Frank Loesser was cast off by his family – his older brother a concert pianist – as they deemed Tin Pan Alley an unsuitable profession for their son.  After failing to write hit songs, he migrated to Hollywood and eventually became one of the most prolific studio songwriters, writing so many memorable songs now classics in The Great American Songbook, such as “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” “Heart and Soul,” “On a Slow Boat to China,” “Two Sleepy People,”“Baby, It’s Cold Outside,”“No Two People,” and “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year”

He only wrote four Broadway musicals, with, of course, his best known work being Guys and Dolls, arguably one of the best musicals ever.  How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961) was written towards the end of his career.  By then he was considered one of the giants of Broadway’s “Golden Age.”

I remember seeing the movie version in the late 1960s with Robert Morse, enjoyable but not really memorable.  So I was looking forward to seeing Maltz’s stage version, knowing how well this theatre group does with precisely this kind of musical.

Indeed, the streaming version breathes much needed life into the work with such great enthusiasm (film is incomparable). The choreography by Rommy Sandhu (known for work regionally across the country and on and off Broadway) brought out much of the humor in all the numbers especially “Coffee Break,” "A Secretary is Not a Toy, and "Paris Original.” He was assisted by Dennis O’Bannion who was in the ensemble and served as Dance Captain. The dancing and twenty one very talented actors /singers under the astute direction of Andy Sandberg (an award-winning director, writer, and Tony®-winning producer), make Maltz’s production a hit.

Sam Bolen as J. Pierrepont Finch
The play traces the rise of J. Pierrepont Finch, who follows a handbook that shows him how to climb the corporate ladder from window washer to the Chairman of the Board of the World Wide Wicket Company.  Sam Bolen is infectiously loveable as Finch with great comic timing and pleasant voice.  The “handbook’s” voice over is by a local TV meteorologist, Glenn Glazer, who added that perfect authoritative instruction to Finch and for the audience’s enjoyment.

Finch’s love interest, secretary Rosemary Pilkington, is dazzlingly played by Clara Cox, with a voice and personality to match the best on Broadway.  One is just mesmerized by her presence in any of her scenes.  I loved her number, ironically entitled (because of COVID-19), “New Rochelle,” in which she fantasizes about married life to Finch.

Clara Cox as Rosemary Pilkington
Chuck Ragsdale, Sam Bolen,
Blake Zolfo
Supporting roles without exception were robust but special mention goes to Blake Zolfo who portrays Finch’s nemesis, Bud Frump, who also happens to be the nephew of the boss, aptly named J.B. Biggley who is hilariously played by Johnnie Hawkins.  JB’s mistress, Hedy La Rue is performed in classic dumb dizzy dame style by Leslie Donna Flesner.

Interestingly, this is one of the few musicals in which there is no real love song, the closest being Rosemary’s reprise of “I Believe In You,” heavenly sung by Clara Cox.  But it is first sung by J. Pierrepont to himself in the mirror of the men’s room while his male coworkers are standing at the urinal their backs to the audience in shadow.  It underscores the satiric nature of most of the songs in the show, but the great Frank Loesser, with the perfect marriage of music and lyrics, makes the other songs memorable, such as "Company Way," "Brotherhood of Man," "A Secretary is Not a Toy, " and of course “I Believe In You.”

Scenic designer Adam Koch’s work and sound designer’s Marty Mets are adequate for this streaming version and probably more impressive when the live production is staged. Lighting designer Kirk Bookman was at a disadvantage as this was really a preview production and probably spots and actor’s placement were not yet in sync and were not designed for cameras zooming in. But all in all the tech team did great work on short notice and for a different medium. 

Outstanding period costumes by Leon Dobkowski give the show an authentic sixty’s look while musical director Eric Alsford’s eight person orchestra is Broadway quality.

This was a very successful and unexpected streaming experience and kudos to Andrew Kato and his team for making this happen and bringing some respite from the horror of COVID-19 through LIVE theatre.

Photos by Zak Bennett