This 1962 show about the rise of an ordinary guy from window-washer to company head is still a hoot, with plenty of satirical zing that’s relevant today.
The cable-TV series “Mad Men” depicted the absurdity and agony of corporate life in the early 1960s.
The 1962 Broadway musical “How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” specializes in the absurdity by dancing, singing and clowning about it.
Though clearly a product of its era, this show about the rise of an ordinary guy from window-washer to company head is still a hoot with plenty of satirical zing. Minus the ’60s fashions and female sex-object jokes, its lampoon of corporate warfare isn’t all that dated.
‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’
Through Feb. 21 at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $29-$101 (206-625-1900 or 5thavenue.org).
“How to Succeed” returned in a hit Broadway revival in 2011. But it’s hard to imagine a zanier, better cast or sung, snazzier edition than the 5th Avenue Theatre’s current one, staged to the hilt by Bill Berry.
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Inspired by a satirical how-to book of the same title by Shepherd Mead, based on his years in advertising, the premise is simple: Any idiot can become a captain of industry, if they just kiss the right fannies, stab rivals in the back and look puppyish and innocent all the while.
The musical adaptation by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert cleverly expanded the lessons in the book. And if you think the songs with “the slam, bang, tang reminiscent of gin and vermouth,” are akin to, say, those in “Guys and Dolls,” that’s no accident. Both award-winning scores are by the inimitable Frank Loesser.
J. Pierrepont Finch, the nebbish on the make, is a role made for Eric Ankrim, a most agreeably devious Everyman. He may be a little fish in a big pond, but as Worldwide Wickets Company colleague Smitty (Sarah Rudinoff, in her element) notes, he’s still a barracuda.
A knockout, colorful Mondrian-inspired set (by Tom Sturge and David Sumner) accommodates Finch’s climb up the corporate ladder with sliding, shifting panels and a series of offices from junior-exec cubbyhole to executive suite.
If the opening title number is an efficient intro, “Coffee Break” busts the production open. During the song, workers discover that the coffee urn is empty, and caffeine withdrawal turns them into a collapsing, gyrating, line-dancing posse of zombies.
Choreographer Bob Richard also works zany magic in the mock-love song “Rosemary,” which has Ankrim giddily fluttering and leaping like a ballerina on helium.
That silly tune celebrates Rosemary (delightful Sarah Rose Davis), a secretary who is instantly smitten with Finch, and dreamily planning a suburban life with a workaholic who ignores her.
Yes, a woman singing about how happy she’ll be just “to keep his dinner warm” is screamingly retro. But consider the context, and the satire — of her ambitions, as well as his.
A more problematic female caricature is Hedy LaRue, the sexpot sweetheart of Allen Fitzpatrick’s amusingly flustered company president. Still, one can marvel at Jessica Skerritt’s deliciously two-faced turn: one minute she’s a breathy Marilyn Monroe wannabe, the next she’s a street-wise climber, who knows what she’s got and works it.
Adam Standley as Finch’s company nemesis Bud Frump uncorks an impressive supply of silly walks, pratfalls and grimaces, a heck of a cowlick and a zest for mugging that if toned down a notch might be even funnier.
It’s also good to see Jeff Steitzer in comic mode, as a yes-man exec who is onto Finch before the latter launches into the show’s one hit tune, that mirror-gazing ode to egomania, “I Believe in You.”
“How to Succeed” runs about three hours, yet it’s amazing how little your attention dips. With this one, the 5th Avenue means business.