November 17, 2013

Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s ‘How to Succeed’ never gets in gear

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre bites off more than it can chew with the dated Broadway musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” The show, which runs throiugh Dec. 1, is beyond the company’s capabilities on almost every level — with the exception of some good performances.

I’ll say this: Karen Paisley, founder of Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, has guts.

Indeed, Paisley has a history of ambitious productions that stretch the MET’s resources to the breaking point. But her current show, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” is beyond the company’s capabilities on almost every level — with the exception of some good performances.

Played on a rudimentary two-level set with actors singing over prerecorded backing tracks, this production never achieves a coherent sense of style. Nor does it make a convincing argument for the MET to do a dated musical comedy that was designed from the get-go to be performed in a big Broadway house.

“How to Succeed” is a New Yorky kind of show — set in New York and infused with a New York state of mind in the “Mad Men” era. The material blithely projects a smirking, sexist world of over-heated corporate climbers chasing marriage-minded “girls” in the steno pool. So why stage this show here, far from Broadway, and now, more than 50 years after the fact?

You could argue that this musical satire offers an anthropological view of mid-20th century mores, but it really comes across as a fossilized example of commercial entertainment from a bygone era. Frank Loesser wrote the music and lyrics, but the level of wit fails to measure up to the high standards of his previous show, “Guys and Dolls,” a whimsical tale of New York gamblers that transcends its era.

Paisley, employing a total of 22 actors, fills up the small MET stage with so many bodies that at times the musical numbers look more like traffic jams than choreographed dances. She exerts tenuous control of the material at best.

That said, we shouldn’t lose sight of Paisley’s track record of doing big-cast shows at the MET with some success. Her production of the two-part epic “The Kentucky Cycle” was rough around the edges, but she captured the drama’s essential power. And the her take on “Ragtime,” the sprawling musical based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, was impressive.

This time around, however, Paisley was unable to marshal adequate resources to effectively bring the show to life. That’s too bad, because nobody can say the hard-working actors don’t give it their best shot.

“How to Succeed” is the tale of a window washer’s rise to the pinnacle of power in a widget company, circa 1961. In order to do this, young J. Pierrepont Finch turns repeatedly to a self-help book that lays out the path to power and the inevitable pitfalls.

Phillip Russell Newman, a fresh-faced actor with a strong singing voice, plays Finch with as much charm as the script and production allow. Mandy Morris, who also choreographed the show, plays Rosemary Pilkington, the secretary with marital designs on Pierrepont, with charisma and good humor. Tony Beasley is hilarious as Bud Frump, the boss’s scheming nephew, although his singing voice loses volume on the low notes. Cecila Gannon exhibits sharp comic timing as Hedy LaRue, the office bombshell.

As Biggley, the company president, Bob Paisley is an awkward fit. Kenna Marie Hall, who can be a palpably sensual presence on stage, physically transforms herself into Smitty, a gape-mouthed secretary with super-sized cat-eye glasses and a formless dress. Another standout among the supporting players is Andy Penn, whose appearance late in the show as board chairman Wally Womper is vivid and energetic and helps lead the company into the penultimate tune — “The Brotherhood of Man,” the best of the bunch.

We’ve come to expect thoughtful dramas at the MET, not elephantine musicals. The company does its best work when it plays to its strengths, but that’s not what happened this time.

The show

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” runs through Dec. 1 at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. For more information, call

816-569-3226 or go to METKC.org.

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