Likable Acting and Lively Score Invigorate 'How to Succeed'


At the Richard Rodgers Theater.

The idea is instantly appealing: Matthew Broderick, who was the embodiment of insouciance as that likable rogue Ferris Bueller, playing J. Pierrepont Finch, the ultimate corporate-ladder climber, in Frank Loesser's classic musical ''How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.''

Although Broderick seems made for the role, he undercuts his effectiveness by going against his natural grain. In his work for Neil Simon in the comedy ''The Freshman,'' and even in the film, ''Ferris Bueller's Day Off,'' what made him so funny were his deadpan reactions, his slightly spaced-out stare, and his low-key persona. Here, perhaps feeling the pressure of carrying a major musical, he makes funny faces and often changes his voice to a strangulated wheeze.

The effortless pixieish charm that made Robert Morse a star in the part is nowhere to be found. What's needed to make the absurdity of this show work is a lighter-than-air quality, and here you can feel the strain.

Still, the actor is so inherently appealing and has such a sharp sense of comic timing that he manages to make the evening fun for the most part, despite a production with some serious flaws. This big-budget revival, which arrives on Broadway after previous engagements at the La Jolla (Calif.) Playhouse and the Kennedy Center in Washington, is directed by Des McAnuff, who continues his fascination with video projections that he displayed with ''The Who's Tommy.''

The backdrop for this set features a constantly swirl-ing stream of video effects and film images that are not only unattractive, but distracting. The sets and costumes are equally garish. Like the recent revival of ''Grease,'' the intent is for a kind of pop-art effect, with lots of bright colors and abstract designs, but rather than making the show feel timeless, it just robs it of its period.

As Finch's boss, the golf playing, secret knitter J.B. Biggley, Ronn Carroll never finds the foppish, satirical quality that made Rudy Vallee's performance in the original so enjoyable; he simply comes across as blustery.

Jeff Blumenskrantz, as Biggley's scheming nephew, and Luba Mason, as the delectable Hedy La Rue, like most of the cast, play as broadly as possible, with the result that the show feels cartoonish rather than satirical.

The biggest surprise comes from Lillias White, who joins ''Brotherhood of Man,'' the male ensemble number at the end of the show, and brings the house down with her sassy vocal energy.

That number, in which Broderick also gets to cut loose, provides the evening's biggest charge, thanks in no small part to Wayne Cilento's spirited choreography. Other numbers, including the hilarious ''Coffee Break'' and ''A Secretary is Not a Toy,'' display similar choreographic inventiveness. Another bonus: the voice of the narrator is Walter Cronkite.

Although the show, like many contemporary musicals, is dated, and doesn't compare to Loesser's masterpiece ''Guys and Dolls,'' it is still very entertaining. The book, written by Abe Burrows, among others, sends up the cutthroat corporate world with a rapier wit. And the score, which includes such classics as ''Brotherhood of Man,'' ''The Company Way,'' and ''I Believe in You,'' still sends audiences out the door dancing.

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