Considering the current climate of our feelings toward big business, it's kind of a relief to revert from the present to a bygone era, and from dreary reality to colorful stylizations. In Seacoast Repertory's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the clock spins back to 1959, and against bright Mondrian-esque squares and perfect little cubes of white light, a prior generation of entrepreneurs and grunts go about their business. The tart candy coating of How to Succeed's wit, delivered with great spunk in the Rep's vivid production, allows you a moment of smirking, rather than growling, at the sneaky avarice of the business world.
And it all starts at the bottom, of course: the mail room. In this case, it's the mail room of World Wide Wicket Company, and the ambitious young big-wheel-to-be is J. Pierpont Finch (Noah Weintraub), armed with the self-help book named in the title (dryly voiced by Paul Garcia). Finch's first goal is to get out of the mail room and onto the radar of president J.B. Higgley (Ed Batchelder) as soon as possible. Finch has a lot going for him in this venture — he's smarter than everybody else, he knows how to be obsequious without being smarmy, and he's attractive to some very helpful women in the office, including Rosemary (Megan Quinn), who's dying to be his happily neglected wife. But the boss's spoiled dolt of a nephew, Bud Frump (Chris Bradley, whose whiny affect of entitlement is pitch-perfect), keeps things interesting. Between Bud, J.B.'s willful and curvy mistress Heddy Larue (Jessica Moryl), and the general perils of office culture, Finch has plenty of reasons to consult his book.
That office culture gets a super send-up in the Rep's production. Jessica Moryl's costumes regale us with a '50s comic-book palette of business dress — bright orange, green, purple, and blue; fedoras and gloves and scarves. The in-house band and sound design offer not just slinky muted trumpet and bass, but boing-boing noises and bells rung. And between Tim Stokel's choreography, director Greg DeCandia's blocking, and the actors' own characterizations, the Rep does a fabulous job with both soft-shoe and physical hyperbole: We get a rageaholic personnel head with jowls that shake like Nixon's (Miles Burns). We get office guys who slouch and lurk and sip from flasks, or who swagger and slimily ooze, or who twitch and grin uncontrollably. We get Heddy's impossibly archetypal undulations in a tight red mini-dress. And of course, we get hero Finch, with such great posture and accommodating body language that you want to trip him.
As in most Rep shows, voices are superb, bodies are nimble, and characterizations are vibrant. Weintraub's Finch is handsome and ingratiating, and personifies the sort of blithe amorality that does so well in business — not immorality, but the sense that morality isn't even part of the equation. In pursuit of this monomaniac, Quinn's sharp Rosemary lets us see she knows exactly what she's getting. Other stand-outs are Bradley's wickedly fun Bud, Amanda Smith's savvy secretary Smitty, and Moryl's marvelous Heddy. Batchelder's J.B. moves nicely between dictator and old softy; as his secretary, Christine Dulong leads one incredible song-and-dance number, "The Brotherhood of Man," that is worth the price of admission.
Of course, a brotherhood business really isn't, and the lovey-dovey parts of this show aren't much of a corrective for everybody's — including Finch's — ambition. Indeed, when it comes time for the resolution, you may find yourself rooting for Chapter 11. Rest assured you won't get that, but the saccharine of the perfect ending does come with a pucker.
Megan Grumbling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING |Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert | Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser | Directed by Greg DeCandia | Musical Direction by Tim Allen | Produced by Seacoast Repertory Theatre, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire | through August 9 | 603.433.4472