Though much of its core material still feels oddly contemporary (even, sadly, some of its unabashed workplace sexism), it was close to 80 years ago that How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying began life as a satirical self-help guide. Its author, Shepherd Mead, wrote the book during his own rise from mailroom clerk to ad agency vice president.
Whereas it took Mead more than a decade to climb the corporate ladder, the ambitious young lead of the 1961 musical adaptation rockets from window cleaner to chairman of the board of the World Wide Wicket Company in two farcical weeks, thanks to his eagerness to follow the voiced-over advice of Mead's manual and a remarkable ability to land repeatedly on his feet. Finch is his name. J. Pierrepont Finch. That's F-I-N-C-H.
Finch accounts for How to Succeed's continued appeal only in part. We've all met his type: some bright spark with a knack for ingratiating him- or herself with superiors. Someone who's quick to take credit for the ideas they like and attribute the ones they don't to an unsuspecting rival. Who parrots affirmational platitudes about teamwork while calmly throwing colleagues under the bus. Who has a gift for dropping all the right names, divulging all the right half-truths, exploiting all the right opportunities.
You can resent a sociopath like this, but the real object of your hostility — and the evergreen butt of How to Succeed — is the kind of culture that allows a Finch to thrive. A culture in which executives, wholly without irony, send out memos about sending out too many memos. Or where a character like Finch can impress with fatuous business-speak or simply by reciting the inflated departmental job titles.
Ilan Hernandez plays a suitably clean-cut and unavoidably fresh-faced Finch in the current production of How to Succeed at Lewis and Clark High School, directed by Greg Pschirrer. His character has little inherent depth beyond a veneer of self-serving ambition, but Hernandez imbues him with enough lambent vivacity that "I Believe in You," Finch's morale-boosting ode to himself, remains one of the show's best songs. Ethan Goins offers a fitting nemesis as gangly, grating Bud Frump.
Opposite Hernandez is Julian Lee as lovestruck secretary Rosemary Pilkington. Lee is excellent, with a lucid, expressive singing voice that gives real emotion to a character who inexplicably longs for a life of suburban neglect; Bailey Heppler's hard-boiled Smitty is a fine foil. Less convincing is Garrett Rahn as boss J.B. Biggley. Like almost any teenaged actor playing someone roughly 50 years his senior, some of the role's jaded gruffness is just beyond reach.
Pschirrer's choreography, executed with panache by the entire cast, is genuinely on a par with Broadway-level shows (highlights include "I Believe in You" and "Coffee Break"). The set itself — visually sumptuous, gorgeously lit — isn't all that dissimilar to the 2011 Broadway revival of How to Succeed starring Daniel Radcliffe. The student orchestra under Jeffrey Boen is generally very good; the music/vocal mix finds a more satisfying balance here than in most area theaters.♦
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying • Through March 5; Thu-Sat, 7 pm • $10 • Lewis and Clark High School • 521 W. Fourth • tigerdrama.com