‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’ at Olney Theatre Center by Amanda Gunther

How to enjoy a night out at the theatre – Step one: Purchase tickets to the first show of the 76th season at Olney Theatre Center. Step two: Make sure the tickets say How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Step three: Show up to the theatre and enjoy a brilliant musical classic from the genius minds of Frank Loesser (the music and lyrics), Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert (the book).

It's been a long day for J. Pierrepont Finch (Sam Ludwig), Smitty (Aileen Goldburg), and Rosemary (Angela Miller). Photo by Stan Barouh.
J. Pierrepont Finch (Sam Ludwig), Smitty (Aileen Goldburg), and Rosemary (Angela Miller). Photo by Stan Barouh.

How to Succeed…is an incredibly campy evening of good old fashioned fun is making its way to the stage to keep audiences alive with laughter in these bitter cold winter months, and it’s a great show for the family – a wonderful production for all to enjoy.

How to create a dazzling multi-purpose set: See Scenic and Projection Designer James Dardenne’s guidebook. Dardenne creates an incredible series of projections to help welcome the audience back to 1961; a showcase of black and white photographs of men at the office, women at home with the supper and children, and other iconic notions of a time long gone. It’s Dardenne’s overall scenic design that allows the enormous World Wide Wicket Building to exist within the confines of the stage, each space—from J.P. Biggley’s Executive Office right down to the Mail Room—looking unique and yet uniformed. Dardenne’s ingenious use of the dual-wrapped staircase creates multiple levels within the building all viewable at the same time, creating an atmosphere conducive for the show’s corporate attitude.

How to outfit a 60’s cast: See Costume Designer Seth Gilbert’s handbook. For the most part, Gilbert does an exceptional job of making the men fit flawlessly into the early 1960’s with their virtually identical gray suits. The clever nod to a time of color comes from the brightly hued socks and matching ties used for each individual business man. Gilbert’s designs for the female ensemble is a little less impressive as the outfits are too busy and rather than pop with vibrant colors, they distract in a mishmash of patterns and way too puffy skirts. The other letdown is the “Paris Original” dress, being a simple pink and purple patterned dress without any real frills or fantasy to it; the dress isn’t even form-fittingly tight as the lyrics in the song proclaim. The dress itself would have been quite stunning had Rosemary’s everyday office dress not been prettier. Gilbert uses a teal and turquoise combination with glitter and a flowery pattern for Rosemary, which is actually lovelier and more eye catching than the dress she spends a whole song praising. To his credit, Gilbert does a sensational job getting everyone in matching shades of red, black, and gray for the big finale.

How to dazzle your audience with sensational dance numbers: See Choreographer Tommy Rapley’s dance charts. In a dance heavy musical, Rapley’s decision to keep the dance numbers minimal increases the impact they have when the big ones hit the stage. There are moments throughout the production that were begging for ensemble and principles alike to burst into dance, but withholding in these moments made the big number “Brotherhood of Man” feel that much more spectacular. Rapley’s simplistic yet solidly executed snazzy jazzy routine for this number steals the show, evolving it from the men and Mrs. Jones to a full company number. Keep an eye on the coordinated chaos of “Coffee Break” where Rapley infuses interpretive calamity into swift routines that feel akin to swing routines.

How to mount an enormous Broadway show successfully: See Director Jason Loewith’s production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Hands down this musical is a beast and Loewith tackles it to near perfection. The one element that I felt truly out of place was Loewith’s decision to arbitrarily dissolve the fourth wall. During “Paris Original” and “Brotherhood of Man” there was a pseudo audience interaction with Rosemary and then with the ensemble that felt out of place for me. Having Finch cheat out to the audience is a given, built into his character, but since these other moments happened without any real explanation to them, it just seemed strange. Loewith, does however, do an incredible job of creating rich and comically engaging performances from these somewhat shallow and static characters. Simple cardstock characters become living people that the audience invests in, laughs along with, and cares about by the time the finale rolls around.

It’s the minor players that really succeed in carrying a lot of this lengthy musical to success. Smitty (Aileen Goldberg), Mr. Bratt (George Dvorsky), and Mr. Twimble (Harry A. Winter) are three prime examples of this fact. Winter, as the dependable company drone (doubling later as the confident and wildly entertaining Wally Womper, Chairman of the Board) gives a rousing rendition of “Company Way,” a duet shared with Finch. His upbeat simplicity for this number makes it a great deal funnier than one might initially think, and his overall approach to the ‘company’ character is quite amusing. Goldberg, as the sarcastic and slightly pessimistic Smitty is a riot with her one-liners that are sprinkled throughout the production. Hearing her rendition of “Coffee Break,” a duo with Bud Frump (Dan Van Why), gives the audience a renewed burst of comedy just when things begin to look grim. Goldberg really gets a chance to display her character in “Been a Long Day,” the song she narrates with charismatic comic charm.

As for Dvorsky, his character is excellently delivered, showcasing a true knowledge of comic timing. It’s his rendition of “A Secretary is Not a Toy,” that left me and some audience members rolling in the aisles; between his epic belts and blasts in this number and his uproarious physicality, he steals this entire scene, running away like a man lit with comic fire.

While Dvorsky may steal that number, Van Why (as the obnoxious little cretin, nephew to the big boss) steals the show every time he makes an appearance in a scene. Van Why is the epitome of annoying, honing sharply in on his nasally accent, insecure physical presence and other little nuances that make his character hilarious. His impromptu dancing bits just outside of Biggley’s office bring screams of laughter from the audience, while his voice is clear like glass in numbers like “Coffee Break,” and “Company Way (Reprise.)” His voice rings out tried and true at the top of the three part harmony featured in the “Act I Finale.” A brilliant performance given, Van Why has mastered this meddlesome antagonistic character with a proper zest easily becoming the Frump we love to hate.

The leading ladies of excellence in this production comes in the format of Mrs. Jones (Sherri L. Edelen) and Hedy La Rue (Colleen Hayes) Both women give stunning performances that will blow you away, vying for the title of comic queen in this production. Edelen has her moments both in and out of song, but presents us with an incredible belt during “Brotherhood of Man.” Hayes is a bubble-headed tomato incarnate; everything from the way she walks to the way she talks emulating a brassy blonde bimbo to sheer perfection. But there’s more than meets the eye to her performance as Hayes wows the audience when singing in “Love From a Heart of Gold” a duet with Biggley (Lawrence Redmond).

J. Pierrepont Finch's (Sam Ludwig, center) rise up the corporate ladder has the other executives at the World Wide Wicket Company nervous. Photo by Stan Barouh.
J. Pierrepont Finch’s (Sam Ludwig, center) rise up the corporate ladder has the other executives at the World Wide Wicket Company nervous. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Redmond finds exceptional balance in the larger-than-life tycoon character of J.P. Biggley, managing to portray him with a rough exterior and a delicate flowery interior. His duet with Finch (Sam Ludwig) “Grand Old Ivy” is a hoot; a smashing laugh-a-minute explosion of physical slapstick and musical belting galore. It’s Redmond’s ability to keep his character versatile that is truly worthy of note; shifting easily from the domineering CEO executive to the wimpy man who wants no responsibilities when things go wrong.

How to trick an audience into loving you through and through before the final curtain: See Sam Ludwig in the role of J. Pierrepont Finch. Comical and easily accessible, Ludwig really engages the audience’s funny bone throughout the production. His voice is stupendously strong and clear and carries quite a melodious sound in numbers like “I Believe In You” and “How To Succeed.” But it’s his physicality— which is nothing short of spastic if not permanently ecstatic— and his facial expressions that really draw the laughs. Watch the way he responds to comically unfortunate situations and see if you can keep yourself from laughing, it’s practically impossible. Ludwig plays up the campiness of the moment and exploits it for all to enjoy. His duet with Rosemary (Angela Miller) entitled “Rosemary” is sublime and gooey, the way a good romantic duet should sound in a comic musical. The pair creates brilliant moments of awkward chemistry in “Been a Long Day,” and Miller has a charming voice that carries her portions of their duets crisply to the ears of the audience.

How to ensure that you see this show before it closes: click on the links below to purchase tickets.

Running Time: Approximately 3 hours, with one intermission.

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How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying plays through February 23, 2014 on the Main Stage at Olney Theatre Center—2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, MD. For tickets call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.

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Amanda Gunther
Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.


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