Thursday, December 22, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #5

Yesterday I was naughty, now it’s time to go back to being nice.  Going forward I’ll be alternating between the Best and Worst lists, so that my number one choice for each will appear right before the New Year. :-)

 Best Shows of 2011
#5 How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed...

Confession time: I have a major soft spot for How to Succeed as a show.  Ever since playing Bud Frump in college, I’ve had an immense appreciation for this expertly crafted, Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.  The story is so tightly structured that even at 3 hours, there’s very little fat on the show.  There is an excellent assortment of characters that all receive the perfect amount of stage time, and the score is ingenious in the way it complements the show’s tone while remaining melodic and inventive.  And the witty satire of 1960s corporate culture is spot on, yet cannily hidden beneath a layer of fun that makes the show supremely accessible and entertaining to everyone.  Add to this my crush on Daniel Radcliffe and I was predisposed to love this show.

However, How to Succeed shares a lot of similarities with Promises, Promises, including director Rob Marshall, who absolutely butchered the latter show back in 2010.  And these star-driven revivals can be very hit or miss (especially with Radcliffe being a complete unknown in the song and dance department), so I approached the show with a mixture of excitement and dread.  And I left 3 hours later grinning from ear to ear.

This is the show many recent revivals were trying to be.  It highlights all of the best aspects of traditional musical theatre while updating things just enough to appeal to a contemporary audience.  No unwieldy concepts or gritty real world approach or scaled-down production values here; just good old fashioned musical comedy, executed by a uniformly excellent cast.  In the lead role Radcliffe is surprisingly good, his natural charm going a long way to make up for any vocal shortcomings (which are minimal for the demands of the show).  His dancing is genuinely shocking in its quality, and it’s refreshing to see a big name star actually get down and dirty with the ensemble rather than have everyone dance around them while they remain stationary.  You can tell Radcliffe is giving 110% and pushing himself to improve, and it just makes his performance that much more impressive.

The show has many great numbers, including two genuine showstoppers.  “Brotherhood of Man” is every bit as good as you could hope, and Rob Marshall must have been particularly inspired the day he came up with his staging for “Grand Old Ivy” (one of the few major changes for this revival, and one of best additions to a preexisting show I’ve seen in years).  And the choreography – another area where I’ve taken issue with Marshall in the past – is fantastic.

Anything Goes ended up with all the critical love last spring, but I honestly feel like How to Succeed is the better show.  I actively want to see it again, whereas once was enough for Anything Goes (although I do love me some Sutton Foster).  Most importantly, this production makes a 50-year-old show feel brand new, as if it had never been done before.  That is the goal of all revivals, and in achieving it How to Succeed earns its place among the year’s best shows.

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