Scale and costumes are two related subjects that seem to always come up in any discussion of Manhattan High’s long run of productions of Broadway musicals.
The most recent of these shows, a straight-up version of the 1961 play “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” uses something over 110 student performers on-stage. Heck, the pit band was over twenty strong.
And in a late first act scene, MHS’s costumer Peggy Riley has dressed a dozen and a half young women in identical “Paris Original” dresses and hats. This is the joke—they are secretaries at a high-tone company party and they have each bought the same dress, one celebrated in the song “Paris Original.”
The first act of the play needs that joke. Otherwise it is dependent on the dancing ability of its Bud Frump, played and danced very well by the high-leaping Nicholas Donohoue in the MHS production. The show needs the identical dress joke and the capering boss’s nephew because the action is desultory and because the great Frank Loesser songs are in the second act.
This is not to say that the first act of the Manhattan High version was less than pleasant. Da’Merius Ford makes a likable Finch. He is the young window washer who relies on advice from a book (read voice-over) to help him in his quick climb to the mailroom, to a “Junior Executive” position, and into the “Vice President for Advertising” office.
Along the way he meets and falls for a secretary named Rosemary (good singing Mariah Messmer), President Biggly (Tyler Cochran, channeling Rudy Vallee effectively in his college fight song), rival Bud, and Hedy LaRue (skilled comedian Claire Freeby), the mistress Biggly must hide in the secretarial pool and yet keep happy.
The minor characters are similarly attractive and well-cast. Ilana Budenosky, Summer Senn, Alex Tolar, and Sarah Mortenson being among those who make use of good acting chances. But I found myself most impressed by the “Featured Men” sub-company, a set of thirteen good-dancing fellows. Drew Horton’s choreography and the good-natured performances of all those dancing were among the show’s highlights.
And once the company got us to the second act, we were delighted by “I Believe in You/Gotta Stop that Man” and the great “Brotherhood of Man” as well as by the timeless goofiness of the “World Wide Wicket Treasure Hunt” TV show idea and by the mustache worn by Chairman of the Board Womper (Zane Reeves).
I was surprised by the play’s assumptions about women’s cliche yearning for domesticity. Did we really believe in something like that once?
But this old musical—it was revived on Broadway for its fiftieth anniversary—was never intended to be a serious depiction of details of American life. If I don’t get my coffee break “something within me dies,” the singers intone. “What’s the opposite of a ladies’ man?” “A business man.” There is a memo suggesting there have been too many memos. Well, maybe that last isn’t so far from the truth. Rip those chipmunks. This wasn’t real life even in 1961.
Except for a couple of minor timing glitches involving the lights, the technical concerns of the production were well-managed. The sound was the best I’ve ever known it to be in the Rezac Auditorium. The set—a wide balcony with roll-on islands of furniture, including a central elevator—worked pretty well, allowing the hordes of players on and off as the pit band rollicked along.
And the costumes? They were up to Manhattan High standards. Which, especially given the number of actors who needed to be dressed, is high praise.