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STAGE REVIEW : ‘How to Succeed’ Profits From Some Funny Business

Corporate ladder climbers beware: Laguna Playhouse’s spirited “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” has your number.

“How to Succeed” may have come out in 1961, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t retained a sort of goofy relevance. After all, the late ‘50s and early ‘60s were, like today, a time when feel-good materialism and big business were the order of the day. With all the current Wall Street scandals and business majors’ feverish talk of making pots of money, this slap-happy satire of unfettered ambition finds loads of new targets.

Sure, creators Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows designed this musical as entertainment, first and foremost. “How to Succeed” thinks all that Machiavellian back-stabbing in the offices of World Wide Wickets is pretty funny stuff; nobody should get too worked up over J. Pierrepont (Ponty) Finch’s ascent, no matter how many bodies are left by the water cooler. This is supposed to be a cartoon about organizational politics and board-room incompetence, complete with song and dance.

But could there be a little bit of a young, flinty-eyed Ivan Boesky lurking in Ponty’s eager manipulations? Our Ponty (the irrepressible Brian Harvey) eventually shows, with the help of his oh-so-nice girlfriend (Helen Lemmon), that he has a deeply buried good side. But mainly he’s just another brazenly ambitious pinstriper, a lie-with-a-smile kind of guy who knows how to work the angles. Put this guy on Wall Street, give him some inside dope and watch the fireworks. And the indictments.

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Director Jay Julian doesn’t use “How to Succeed” to make any obvious points about the new materialism; that’s left up to the audience to see if it chooses. Julian’s ambition is, in the end, much simpler. He wants everybody to enjoy the lively acting and singing, his own clever choreography, Anthony Falcone’s colorful, very-'50s sets and Marcia O’Malley’s bright vintage costumes. He succeeds by merging it all together in a comfortably paced whole.

As with most musicals, the performers don’t always have to be great, they just have to emote great--that is, to convey simple emotions in large, accessible ways, even while singing.

Harvey knows all about that. A little eye-rolling and some insinuating body language communicates, in a big way, Ponty’s enormous appetite for getting ahead. But even when this guy is chiseling his way around and taking advantage of everybody he comes in contact with, it’s difficult not to like him. There’s even a boyish lilt in Harvey’s singing to let us know that he isn’t always so bad.

All Ponty needs is someone to bring out the best in him. Lemmon’s Rosemary tries to do that, but even she has a touch of the conniver, although her wiles are primarily aimed at getting her man. Lemmon is a cute and likable woman with a cute and likable voice that works nicely here.

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As Bud Frump--Ponty’s chief competition on the up ladder--the rubbery John Huntington takes over most of the scenes he’s in by playing it loose, broad and witty. Other strong performances come from Kathy Collins as the buxom, unskilled secretary, Hedy La Rue, and Harper Roisman as the easily maneuvered boss, J. B. Biggley.

‘HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING’

A Laguna Playhouse production of Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows’ musical. Directed by Jay Julian. With Brian Harvey, Helen Lemmon, Harper Roisman, John Huntington, Dana Van Diver, Harriet Whitmyer, Richard Greeley, Jerry Newman, Bill Littleton, Kathy Collins, Erroll Tyrone, Norman Weingarten, Doina Roman, Kevin Bossenmyer, Jon Schendel, Fred Robison, Kevin Suarez, Phil Morgan, Scott Hayes, Donna Getzinger, Lisa Miller, Allison Hurzeler, Laura Wells and April Yee. Sets by Anthony Falcone. Costumes by Marcia O’Malley. Lighting by Kathy Pryzgoda. Musical direction by Mark Turnbull. Plays Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through Oct. 2 at the Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Tickets: $14-$16. (714) 494-8021 and (714) 494-0743 and 0744.


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