Visitors to movie sets soon learn not to trust their own eyes. Sometimes the most impressive buildings are not solid structures at all; they're actually flimsy façades. So it is with the current Stages St. Louis production of the 1961 musical comedy How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: It looks like How to Succeed; it sounds like How to Succeed. But once you get past the externals, this version is merely an empty shell of that witty Pulitzer Prize-winning satire about how to swim with the sharks on Madison Avenue.
Based on the 1952 novel by former St. Louisan Shepherd Mead and set in the executive offices of the mythical World Wide Wickets Co., the musical hilariously chronicles the rise of ambitious young J. Pierrepont Finch from window-washer to chairman of the board. Abe Burrows' script is so deftly crafted, Frank Loesser's score so exuberant, that this show is always going to give pleasure, on some fundamental level, regardless. But Stages seems to be conducting a perverse experiment to determine how many things you can do wrong yet still entertain your audience.
As the irrepressible Finch, Thom Christopher Warren gives a performance that's hardly a performance at all. Instead, he's like a robotic clone of Robert Morse, who created the role on Broadway. Not that Warren looks like Morse. (He actually resembles a young Richard Nixon, which doesn't help when your main job is to exude charm.) You get the sense that the only direction this actor received was to study the movie version of How to Succeed and then steal every piece of business Morse used. The result is that the precise gestures and the cunning smiles are all here, but they're empty. There's a disconnect between the actor and his role. His leading lady is even more problematic. Rosemary, the long-suffering secretary, is a colorless role in an otherwise colorful show. Leslie Lorusso tries to overcome this deficiency by ending every sentence with an exclamation point! It gets very irritating! As sexpot secretary Hedy La Rue, Judy Mann is well endowed with everything -- except comic timing.
But actors don't cast themselves, and actors don't direct themselves. Despite the fact that the playbill credits this production to director Michael Hamilton, I don't think these actors were directed by anyone. This production may have been staged, but it wasn't directed. Hamilton also bears ultimate responsibility for men's costumes that are so drab as to be downright subversive and for an ambitious yet puzzling scenic design that ends up resembling a spiderweb more than it does a corporate headquarters.
On a brighter note, the choreography by Dana Lewis delightfully captures the satiric yet cartoonlike style that should have stamped the entire show. The many ensemble numbers provide the evening's high points. In fact, the singing and dancing ensemble is the real star of the evening. Others who capture the proper tone include Howard Lawrence as frantic villain Bud Frump, Tracey Conyer Lee as Rosemary's best friend and Katherine Harber as the boss' executive secretary. But something is sadly awry when the best performances are delivered by the supporting players and the chorus.
Christopher Walken once suggested, "It's very hard to do a bad production of Hamlet. There's so much going on, that any time a viewer gets to see Hamlet, he's going to have some reason to be glad he came." By that measure, How to Succeed is a Hamlet among musicals, a classic, and anyone who sees it surely will find something to like. Nevertheless, this false-front Stages rendition -- which, at two hours and 55 minutes, is longer than many a Hamlet -- is Exhibit A of how to succeed under the flimsiest of circumstances.