When the 1920s crooner heartthrob Rudy Vallee made his return to Broadway in the 1961 original production of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, he wasn't exactly known as an actor, and certainly not known as a comedian who might excel in a scalding satire of the ups and downs of the corporate ladder. So when director Abe Burrows guided him through the role of J.B. Biggley, the feared and revered President of World-Wide Wickets, he gave him specific instructs... don't be funny. Since the brilliant comic scribe Burrows was also writing the book for How To Succeed... (starting from Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert's straight play draft) he knew exactly how to surround the star with daffy characters and plant him into silly situations while keeping him obliviously normal. By not really giving a performance, but by being Rudy Vallee saying lines and singing songs, the used-to-be has-been had audiences rolling with laughter.
I wasn't privy to any conversations between director/choreographer Rob Ashford and the star of his How To Succeed... revival, Daniel Radcliffe, but I wouldn't be surprised if similar instructions about not being funny were part of the plan. Radcliffe, of course, is not playing the grizzled executive, but appears as the chipper, young Machiavellian, J. Pierrepont Finch, whose fast-rising corporate career path is trail-blazed by a handy pocket guidebook to success.
Immersed in a world of back-stabbers and self-preservationists, Finch's technique is to gain favor with those above him via carefully-worded honesty that triggers them to make the wrong assumptions. He never steps on anyone on his way to the top, but rather facilitates their ability to step on themselves. Burrows keeps Finch sympathetic with specific moments for the actor to subtly connect with the audience and by letting him inadvertently win the heart of a nice, young secretary who dreams of a suburban life as the neglected wife living in the shadow of a preoccupied go-getter (Yes, this is a satire.).
Gliding on the wit and syncopation of an atypically unromantic Frank Loesser score (every song is either a comedy number or a song that becomes funny through context or staging), Robert Morse's cartoonish, hyperactive song-and-dance clowning made an iconic impact on the role. But while no actor should feel obligated to replicate the originator's interpretation, Ashford sends Radcliffe on stage, either by design or by necessity, with a bland non-performance that doesn't stand a chance next to his vivacious and funny colleagues. He speaks, with a fine American accent, rather plainly, sings without energy and perpetually seems more amused than amusing.
Perhaps the point is that Finch succeeds by not being noticed, but it leaves a star vehicle dangling without a star. Those specific moments between the actor and audience have been changed to a lighting effect. The extended musical underscoring of the hero and heroine's first kiss, a fine opportunity for comedy, now features a ballet troupe grabbing attention. When Radcliffe is finally pushed front and center to perform, "I Believe In You," he sings one of Broadway's most ingenious comic performance pieces with his arms to his side and his voice clinging mundanely to the melody, reducing a scene that several lesser-known musical theatre regulars could turn into a career-highlighting triumph into a throwaway number that slows down the second act. But then, semi-miraculously and about ten minutes before the final curtain, the star shows some legitimate signs of chops as he leads a rousing dance routine to the faux-inspirational, "Brotherhood of Man," leaving one to wonder where the heck that performance has been for the past two-and-a-half hours.
Aside from all that, this sterling musical comedy sparkles like new. Bucking the trend of revising older shows to fit a director's concept, Ashford generally sticks to the Pulitzer Prize winning script here, staging the production in his own muscular dance style that suits the material nicely. Derek McLane's clever design makes the interior of the World-Wide Wickets offices resemble the steel-framed Seagram Building, where glass walls double as discothèque cages for dancers to go-go. Ashford adds a lively football game ballet to the scene where Finch and Biggley sing "Grand Old Ivy"; not really needed, but a better idea than staging "Cinderella, Darling" as a tap number where the dancing tends to drown out the lyric.
The supporting company is spunky and fun throughout. Unlike Rudy Vallee, John Larroquette aggressively goes for the laughs and nails them, letting his stern J.B. Biggley lapse into well-placed boyishness and spinelessness. Rose Hemingway makes a beguiling Broadway debut as the ingénue with a passion for suburban gender roles. Christopher J. Hanke's smarmy president's nephew, Mary Faber's acerbic secretary, Ellen Harvey's intimidating executive secretary and Tammy Blanchard's intelligent take as a sexpot trophy secretary all add enjoyable antics and Rob Bartlett brings his usual schlubby comic mastery to his double role as a waves-avoiding company man and a down-to-earth chairman of the board.
Despite some bumps, this is an admirable mounting of a top tier show, and those unfamiliar with How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying should definitely make a point of enjoying the best musical theatre material currently playing on Broadway.
Photos by Ari Mintz: Top: Daniel Radcliffe and Company; Bottom: John Larroquette and Tammy Blanchard.
Even without the above-the-title name value of Robin Williams, the Broadway debut of playwright Rajiv Joseph, whose intriguing surrealist imagination has previously graced New York stages in plays like the inspiring Animals Out of Paper and the disturbing Gruesome Playground Injuries, is a welcome event for this season.
And as a performer with more than a passing fancy for the surreal, Williams is an excellent match for the playwright as he shuns the manic exuberance he's known for and shines with philosophical warmth as the title character in the darkly comic drama Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.
Mind you, the actor is never required to actually impersonate a tiger during the evening. In shabby, baggy clothes with a scruffy white beard and a humorously fatalistic demeanor, Williams seems prepared to play Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. But when the play opens he's a caged beast being guarded by two American soldiers, Tom (Glenn Davis) and Kev (Brad Fleischer). It's 2003 and his home shows signs of the recent bombings that led to the lions escaping, only to be gunned down. He's satisfied to stay put and enjoy constant care and regular meals. But when he's confused by Tom's attempt to feed him, he bites off the soldier's hand and Kev impulsively responds by shooting the animal dead.
The tiger spends the rest of the non-linear play wandering the streets, observing the actions of everyday Iraqis trying to just go on with their lives, and commenting on the role God plays in the madness surrounding him. His presence is only felt by Kev, a not-very-bright hot head who goes mad from the tiger's haunting.
After being fitted with an artificial hand, Tom voluntarily returns to Baghdad in search of a gold-plated gun and a solid gold toilet seat he lifted from the mansion of Saddam's dead son, Uday Hussein (Hrach Titizian). Uday's former gardener, Musa (Arian Moayed), now works as a translator for American troops, often placed in the middle of tense situations where the slightest misunderstanding could lead to open fire against unarmed civilians. Musa is also haunted, by the memory of what Uday did to his beloved sister (Sheila Vand).
Despite the ugliness on display, director Moises Kaufman and his very strong ensemble keep the evening in a thoughtful, cerebral tone. The highlight of Derek McLane's scenic design is the unkempt remains of a garden where Musa once sculpted a life-sized menagerie out of the bushes, here representing a lost paradise.
A Pulitzer Prize finalist last year, Bengal Tiger is certainly the most ambitious work to emerge from this 36-year-old Brooklynite who has spent the last six years becoming one of New York theatre's most unpredictable and fascinating contributors.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Robin Williams, Brad Fleisher and Glenn Davis; Bottom: Arian Moayed and Sheila Vand.
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