In its portrayal of corporate ruthlessness, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was pretty daring for its time. Back in 1961, when it premiered on Broadway, a lot of people still admired the business world. The musical shows an ambitious young man, J. Pierrepont Finch, angling his way to the top of a huge corporation — originally called World-Wide Wickets, but renamed World Wide Wheelchairs for this production by PHAMALY, the only company in the country featuring actors with all kinds of disabilities. Finch's bible is a how-to book that shares the show's title. One by one, he destroys his rivals, until eventually everyone in the place is afraid of him. With the exception, that is, of lovely secretary Rosemary, who knows within minutes of first laying eyes on Finch that she'd be "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" for the rest of her life.
The tone is deliberately cartoonish, the songs tuneful and often quite funny (particularly the yearning anthem to coffee, "Coffee Break," "Old Ivy," and — sorry, feminist friends — "A Secretary Is Not a Toy"). Because while the show is dated, it's not as inaccurate a portrayal of the '60s business world as most people would like to believe. In those days, the want ads in the newspapers (yeah, that's where you looked) were divided into jobs for men and jobs for women, and it was a rare educated woman who aspired to be anything other than a secretary. When boss J.B. Biggley hires bombshell Hedy La Rue despite her lack of any skills or qualifications, the satire is very broad, but not off the mark. Any woman of a certain age could tell you how important looks were in snaring a job — along with coffee-making skills, flattery and a willingness to pick up your boss's dry cleaning, as well as write his dumb kid's term paper. You might grow old in the man's service, but he'd always call you his "girl." So I really wouldn't have minded hearing the anthemic number in which all the secretaries urge Rosemary to accept Finch — "Don't, Cinderella, don't turn down the prince" — which has been cut from this production, perhaps because, as director Steve Wilson explains in the program, PHAMALY wanted to soften the show's sexism. That's as unnecessary as it is impossible. Besides, perhaps the most dated song is the one in which the head of the mailroom explains that he'll never be unemployed because he keeps his head down, always agrees with the boss, and plays it "The Company Way." You know how well employee loyalty pays off these days.
Presented by PHAMALY through August 7, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-575-0005, www.phamaly.org.
I can't imagine a more likable Finch than Jeremy Palmer, whose face always suggests a thoughtful sensitivity, no matter what vile and dishonest thing Finch is doing, and he carries this central role with a great deal of skill and charm. Jenna Bainbridge's Rosemary is equally charming, enough to make us forgive the woman's servility. And there are a host of other good performances on the stage, notable among them Mark Dissette as Biggley, Kathy Wood as the semi-wised-up Smitty, Don Mauck's Bratt and David J. Wright playing the obliging mailroom head, Mr. Twimble. Edward Blackshere does a nice turn as the chairman of the board, and Stephen Hahn is full of piss and vinegar as Mr. Tackaberry. Nicki Runge, listed on the program as deaf, good-naturedly signs her regrets when the coffee runs out; Lucy Roucis gives a killer performance as a gruff female executive (yes, a few of them did exist, but — as Roucis reveals — they had to dress and act like men). Lyndsay Giraldi-Palmer gives Hedy all kinds of vitality, but it's a one-note performance, and though Daniel Traylor is funny as Finch's arch-enemy Bud Frump, he's also over the top.
How to Succeed is less soulful than most of the musicals PHAMALY has produced, and it makes less of an emotional impact. Still, when Amber Marsh leaps onto a table at the end to lead the entire cast in "Brotherhood of Man," I felt in my throat that very particular surge of emotion and joy that only this amazing company is capable of producing.