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July 24, 2014

Theater review: Cast revitalizes 'How to Succeed in Business'

An abundance of style and verve mark "How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying" now playing at Stages St. Louis.

With its vivacious ensemble and smooth direction, this retro send-up of a '60s Madison Avenue workplace was an entertaining romp opening night Wednesday, without a speck of rust to be found anywhere on stage.

Sure, the women characters are pre-women's liberation and the men are lechers pre-sexual harassment laws, but keep that in context, and you'll get past the blatant gender profiling. It was written in 1961, after all. Seven Tonys, a Pulitzer Prize and two acclaimed revivals followed.

What makes the show such classic musical theater is its skillful blend of Abe Burrows' irreverent wit and zingy attention-getting characters with memorable melodies by Frank Loesser and lively dances. And poking fun at climbing the corporate ladder is always good for some laughs.

Director Michael Hamilton has squeezed out every laugh line with the help of his savvy cast, expertly tapping into comical exaggeration. He has made sure everything flows at a swift pace, piling on charm and spunk.

Nimble triple-threat Ben Nordstrom, who is so popular at Stages he gets the star ovation the minute he walks out, was a marvel of motion as the impish J. Pierrepont Finch, a transparently ambitious young man who rises from window washer to advertising executive at World Wide Wickets.

With a mischievous grin and impeccable timing, he fit Finch to a proverbial T.

He is matched by the always stellar Whit Reichert, Belleville native, who piles on the ham as the blustery, buffoonish company president J.B. Biggley. Comfortable in the tailor-made role, he displays a twinkle in his eye and spring in his step. They shine in "Grand Old Ivy."

Nordstrom excels at moving the action along, never missing a beat in this demanding role. He's sensational in his big numbers "I Believe in You," "The Company Way," the title song and leads a rousing "The Brotherhood of Man."

The supporting cast overflows with superb portrayals, with Joseph Medeiros sassy and sneaky as weasel Bud Frump, Bill Bateman hilarious in the dual roles of Twimble and Chairman of the Board Wally Womper, and Claire Neumann hitting the right notes as cynical Smitty.

Johmaalya Adelekan puts terrific oomph in Miss Jones, and adds a lively gospel aspect to her segment of "The Brotherhood of Man."

Betsy DiLellio made her Stages debut as the perky Rosemary, and displayed a beautiful singing voice in "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" and "Paris Original."

Heather Ayers also made her debut as the va-va-voom, curvy Hedy LaRue. Channeling Judy Holliday, she stole every scene she was in, chewing gum and using her feminine wiles, shall we say.

The Stages creative team amplified the set with a gaily lit grid, showing off James Wolk's stunning set and Matthew McCarthy's innovative lighting design. It's truly special work deserving of much praise.

Costume designers Jeff Shearer and Lou Bird adorned the women in brilliant lollipop shades for snappy office outfits -- the designer dress that's the subject of "Paris Original" was a runway "Wow." They picked subtle shades of khaki for the men's business suits, a clever move, but had Finch stand out in bold colors.

The entire production expresses a vitality as we're transported to another time that makes for a lovely outing. The moxie of the performers particularly stands out.

At a glance

What: "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"

When: Through Aug. 17; 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays

Tickets:; 314-821-2407

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