How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at Southwark Playhouse: some lost musicals should stay lost

 (Pamela Raith)
(Pamela Raith)

Time hasn’t been kind to this musical spoof about a window washer scaling the hierarchy of American business and acquiring a compliant secretary/wife along the way, although it won every award going on its Broadway premiere in 1961.

It has few memorable songs, an oafish plot and an attitude to gender relations that is prehistoric. Rather than go all out and stage it as a period piece, or reframe it for modern sensibilities, director Georgie Rankcom opts for a clumsy fudge.

The production has an arch, cartoonish style. The cast mug furiously and their voices are more strident than beautiful. The casting of Gabrielle Friedman and Tracie Bennett in the traditional male lead roles fails to illuminate or excuse the dodgy sexual politics.

Alexzandra Sarmiento’s choreography is basic but fine, the band is tight, and Sophia Pardon’s costumes are better than her set of Mondrian panels and, yes, corporate ladders. Mostly, this show reaffirmed my conviction that some lost musicals should stay lost.

But because it was created by composer/lyricist Frank Loesser and writer Abe Burrows, the team behind Guys and Dolls, was revived in New York with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead in 2011, and hasn’t had a major London production since 1963, How To Succeed… has gained a kind of mythic status. It’s based on a play that was based on a comic bestseller that was based on innumerable self-improvement tomes.

Grace Kanyamibwa in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Pamela Raith)
Grace Kanyamibwa in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Pamela Raith)

J Pierrepont Finch (Friedman) is a devotee of a step-by-step guide to business success: the book is voiced here, for no good reason, by Michelle Visage, the star of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Elbowing his way into the World Wide Wicket Company, “Ponty” rises to the top by a combination of guile, luck and backstabbing.

He’s a blank, bland character but that doesn’t matter because everyone around him is supremely dim, hopeless or blinded by lust. In the case of uber-gruff company president JB Biggley (Bennett), obsessed with pneumatic secretary Hedy LaRue, it’s all three.

As Hedy, Annie Aitken wiggles around outrageously like a combination of Jessica Rabbit and Joan from Mad Men, but the only truly rounded performance on stage comes from Allie Daniel as Rosemary Pilkington. She alone makes the rare witticisms here zing, and convincingly sells the abominable lyrics to Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm, a hymn to wifely surrender.

The first half is full of unremarkable musical numbers with playground rhymes, like Coffee Break and the grim A Secretary is Not a Toy (“to fondle and dandle and thoughtlessly handle”). The best songs are in the second act: the shimmering, self-loving I Believe in You, with its slinky counterpoint sung by a jealous rival: and the anthemic Brotherhood of Man, which has no connection to the story but ties everything up in a big, dumb bow. This gives Grace Kanyamibwa a chance to unveil a powerful soul voice, but it’s too little, too late.

The same team unearthed Sondheim’s dreadful Anyone Can Whistle at this theatre last year. They’ve proved again that, just because you can revive a justly neglected, so-called classic, it doesn’t mean you should.

Southwark Playhouse, to June 17,