Review: TUTS “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”

How to Succeed, the TUTS Edition: 1) Decide to produce a crowd-pleasing classic. 2) Hire a great director and cast. 3) Build clever, colorful sets and design lovely costumes. To quote the show: “You can!” And in their new production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars has done more than simply succeed.

This is the second time this show has been presented by TUTS (last time was way back in 1977) and it follows on the heels of the recent smash-hit Broadway revival starring Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette. The story concerns J. Pierrepont Finch, a window washer who works his way quickly up the corporate ladder through a series of chance meetings, cleverly staged coincidences and sometimes just pure luck. A satire of the modern corporate structure, the show gets many of its laughs from the very things that frustrate the modern office worker. Though written back in the mid-20th century and still set in that time period, many of the show’s themes resonate still today.

Chris Dwan, recently seen on Broadway in “Finding Neverland” is the perfect “Ponty,” mixing the right amount of charm and playful deception into the character. He’s clearly manipulating the whole company and everyone around him, but he still must be lovable or the show doesn’t work. Dwan delivers with a strong singing voice and great physicality. As his love interest Rosemary, Ashley Blanchet (Broadway’s “Beautiful”) delivers a nice balance of love and loathing of Ponty depending on the situation. Also excellent is Joshua Morgan as Bud Frump, the Boss’s nephew and the man determined to bring down J. Pierrepont Finch at any cost. Morgan, a veteran of Broadway’s “Les Miserables” embodies Bud with everything you’d expect from a spoiled brat and tattletale. The rest of the cast is equally capable, with strong supporting performances and a terrific ensemble.

While quite different from the set used in the recent Broadway revival, the offices of World Wide Widgets look stunning on The Hobby Center Stage, a great credit to Scenic Designers Tom Sturge and David Sumner. Modular like an office full of cubicles, the set changes from smaller offices to large boardrooms seamlessly and what is an elevator in one scene is cleverly re-purposed as an office or the mail room in other scenes. Dan Knechtges’ direction and choreography serves the piece well without ever overpowering it or seeming out of place. The sound, sometimes an issue at TUTS shows, was also excellent at Thursday’s performance with the orchestra and singers both in fine form.

One nice touch was the use of KPRC’s “Houston Live” co-host Derrick Shore as The Narrator (a role voiced by Anderson Cooper in the recent Broadway revival). A pre-recorded but important aspect of the show, it was clever of the creative team to add this local spin to the production.

TUTS recently made some changes to its core staff, dismissing longtime artistic director Bruce Lumpkin and replacing him with Sheldon Epps. Mr. Lumpkin was responsible for many great productions over the years and some wondered what this change would mean for the direction of this theatre company. Based on this production and last month’s “In the Heights,” it appears that TUTS has done nothing but increase the quality of their productions while expanding the variety of offerings in their season. “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” is not to be missed and for those who might have written off TUTS and their self-produced shows, it’s time to give them another look.

**** out of *****
“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”
Music & Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock & Willie Gilbert
Based on the book by Shepherd Mead
Directed by Dan Knechtges
Theatre Under the Stars – The Hobby Center
Now through November 6th
Photo: Joshua Morgan (red sweater) as Bud Frump and the company of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” at Theatre Under the Stars


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