By PAM HARBAUGH
With its entertaining and fast-paced production of “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying,” Riverside Theatre ends its 40th seasons — one of its very best — with such verve that it’ll make you yell “encore!”
Set at the societal precipice of women’s lib, civil rights marches and society’s general consciousness raising, “How to Succeed” extols the “Brotherhood of Men” who pat each other on the back to get ahead while the women remain busy secretaries waiting to become wives. The musical has the same kind of feel good, what-me-worry gravitas as a Doris Day movie.
In other words, check your beret at the door and enjoy the spectacle, served up by a mostly female creative team.
Based on the book by Shepherd Mead, the 1962 Pulitzer Prize winning musical was written by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. It takes a comic look at window washer J. Pierrepont Finch’s meteoric rise to chairman of the board of World Wide Wickets. Reading a how-to book on climbing the corporate ladder, Finch learns who to befriend, how to finagle a promotion and how to turn a disadvantage into another rung on the ladder.
While the story is all about Finch’s charm and lucky timing, the production is all about Michele Lynch’s sensational choreography — some of the best ever on Riverside’s stage. Ms. Lynch uses fresh invention and sprightly energy, kicking the entire show up that ladder right alongside Finch. Her work in “Coffee Break,” “A Secretary Is Not a Toy” and “Brotherhood of Man” is, simply, terrific.
Directed seamlessly by Casey Hushion, the show moves at an exhilarating pace. Ms. Hushion has impressive credits. Her work includes associate director for “Elf” and Broadway/national tours of “In the Heights” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Here, her direction throughout is smart and creative, especially in “I Believe in You” which takes the audience through several visual points of view. This marks her debut at Riverside Theatre, leaving us crossing our fingers that she’ll return.
Her professional cast delivers 150 from curtain to curtain. As Finch, Jeremy Morse…nope, no relation to Robert Morse who originated the role on Broadway and starred in the 1967 movie…Jeremy Morse summons his every ounce of cuteness and spot-on timing, making the glad-hander a winning hero. Becky Gulsvig (so poignant last season as Eponine in Riverside’s “Les Miz”) hits constant sweet notes as Rosemary, the secretary who loves Finch.
Mark Jacoby gets to the crusty center of World Wide Wickets president J.B. Biggley and Ed Romanoff is a real treat as kindly mail room supervisor Mr. Twimble and, later, grumbling chairman of the board Wally Womper. It’s great fun to see both Mr. Jacoby and Mr. Romanoff show their talent and experience while dancing and singing among their younger cast mates.
Brian Shepard carves a perfect portrayal of smarmy, manipulative Bud Frump, Biggley’s nephew who dishes up the story’s conflict. And Amy Bodnar delights as funny, sexy Hedy LaRue, the married president’s girlfriend.
Other kudos to music director Anne Shuttlesworth and costume designer Lisa Zinni who exacts the 1960s looks. Robert Andrew Kovach’s scenic design intrigues with its use of windows through which you can see an impressionistic image of the New York skyline. Although vivid, his use of scenic units lit in a crayon box of neon hues by lighting designer Paul Black, comes across more ’80s than ’60s.
This is Riverside’s second co-production with Philadelphia’s venerable Walnut Street Playhouse, opening there May 13. For sure, audiences who love big musical comedies have a treat coming to them. It is quite impossible to sit in that audience and not want to sing along or move in your seat or at least tap your foot to “How to Succeed.” It’s fun, fast and so well worth a drive to Vero Beach.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” runs through April 27 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Park Drive, Vero Beach. Tickets are $45 to $70. Call 772-231-6990 or visit riversidetheatre.com.