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Down to Business 

Out of time but in tune at NCRT

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Some revivals use sweetly charming finesse and nearly neurotic attention to detail to evoke a wistful walk down memory lane. Others update the setting to modern times for satire and farce. North Coast Repertory Theatre's adaptation of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying veers between the two paths, but it's anchored by bullseye casting and strong lead performances.

The 1961 play by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert is not easy to adapt, particularly with a small stage and an even smaller house. Thematically, the plot is almost timeless. Young J. Pierrepont Finch makes his way from lowly window washer to executive vice president, all with the help from a handy little how-to book. Climbing the corporate ladder turns out to be relatively easy if you know how to take advantage of the ego-driven stupidity that runs rampant in a corporate setting. Set in the fast-paced, high-rise corporate world of post-WWII America, the dialogue and plot are rife with less timeless misogynistic undertones, topical pop-culture references and more pratfalls than you can shake a slapstick at. This is where things get tricky.

Director Lauren Wieland makes some interesting choices in regard to time and place. The women's costumes by Lauren Rhinehart — particularly the dresses and sweater sets crucial to the story and characters — are perfect 1960s (to the point where I considered mugging certain characters during intermission). In an ideal world, an elaborate set would work with the costumes to capture the essence of the era, bolstering the out-of-date cultural and corporate references for winking reminiscence. But the set pieces, props and added lines of dialogue create for an inconsistent sense of time. The desks and pastel backgrounds echo the 1980s and the props, like an iPad and pink keyboards, hint at modern technology. On the one hand, the song "A Secretary is Not a Toy," which warns against fishing off the company pier, is strictly Mad Men-era, but elsewhere in the play characters make reference to the HBO show Boardwalk Empire. Anachronisms aside, Wieland makes excellent use of NCRT's tiny and intimate stage without sacrificing any of the larger-than-life elements that come with the territory of staging a Broadway musical. Some big production numbers are scaled back, but the finale with the whole cast, complete with acrobatic dancing, is well done.

For such a large spectacle, NCRT's production has a relatively small ensemble cast. With only 15 actors playing 16 parts, there's no room for a weak link — any subpar performance would stand out like a sore thumb. Chris Hamby's performance as the lead, J. Pierrepont Finch, is jawdroppingly dynamic. Hamby nails the boyish charm and naiveté needed for the part with enough energy to fill a much larger theater. He steals every scene, sometimes casting a shadow over the other actors' excellent performances. As the villain Bud Frump, Anthony De Page matches Hamby's scale and energy without going overboard. Elizabeth Erenberger is perfectly cast in the role of the CEO's mistress Hedy, a woman with a Rita Hayworth look and an amusingly abrasive manner, pulling off gag malapropisms with sexy confidence.

The songbook from How to Succeed isn't one of the most well known from the Broadway canon, but the larger, finale numbers are catchy and infectious. I still have "Brotherhood of Man" stuck in my head and I'm making no efforts to remove it. Hamby dominates the vocal performances, as well, though the shadow he casts is a bit smaller. Haley Katz's portrayal of Finch's love interest, Rosemary, gives Hamby a run for his money — she manages a sweet ingénue that's not too sweet, and she sings with a lovely voice that would be a pleasure to hear projected bigger. Whether it's a duet or a solo, Katz's voice is made for show tunes.

With its nearly unrecognizable songbook and a mostly outdated plot, How to Succeed is an odd choice for a musical, but Wieland and cast pull it off better than expected.

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About The Author

Henry Ellis

Henry Ellis

Henry Ellis has been a freelancer with NCJ since 2011; he has never made a deadline.

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