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Age Is Served in CPCC's How to Succeed in Business

by Carrie Nowell

Age Is Served in CPCC's How to Succeed in Business

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Picture by Christopher Record

February 17, 2015

Abraham Lincoln is among several credited with proposing that, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count.  It’s the life in your years.” While the aphorism is most commonly referenced as a Hallmark consolation to graduates or the aging, it also suggests a type of experiential meritocracy from the opposite end of the spectrum — one where youth is not necessarily synonymous with inexperience or ineptitude. Apply it to the business world, though, and the suggestion is met with scoffs and rolled eyes -- just like the ones that young J. Pierrepont Finch receives when he strides into the World Wide Wicket Company to ask the firm’s president for a job at the beginning of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Through Feb. 22, CPCC Theatre Series presents at Halton Theater the Tony Award-collecting, Frank Loesser musical about how one cunning young man, aided by the titular self-help novel, climbs the corporate ladder from window washer to chairman of the board. The production, directed by Tom Hollis, reminds us that there are more ways than one to reach the top, and that we’re not necessarily served best only by those with experience. Ironically, though, it’s the superb performances of the experienced actors here that suggest that the finesse and wisdom that come with the passing years can’t be beat for stage success.

The show got off to a shaky start as lead Hank Santos (Finch), a recent graduate of Northwest School of the Arts, descended on a wooden swing from the catwalk while reading the nifty step-by-step manual to professional accomplishment, narrated by Mike Collins. The suave, collected character seemed detracted by the actor’s obvious nerves until the first company musical number, “How to Succeed,” when Santos marched into his element dancing alongside the ensemble. The supporting cast of junior executives and secretaries were, in fact, a triple threat all night — a powerful chorale with synchronized 60s twists, and charisma that provided a sturdy backbone for Santos throughout the production’s two-hour run time. At times, it even seemed that the ensemble was holding back from bombarding the audience with the sound of such a forceful congregation.

J. B. Biggley (Steven Martin) and Hedy LaRue (Corinne Littlefield)As Finch cleverly tricks and sleeps his way to the top, he meets several classic office personalities that threaten to steal the show. Head of the mailroom, Twimble, portrayed by Charlotte stage regular Stuart Spencer, is an unsung hero in the production — a comically cautious, by-the-book employee with a jolly spirit and an ironic resemblance to a homonymic pair of peculiar Lewis Carroll twins. Spencer’s portrayal is a refreshing dose of goofiness injected into the rather straight-faced parody.

But it’s the climax of the musical that provides the most spine-tingling performance, when Miss Jones (Tracie Frank), President Biggley’s secretary, lets loose with the entire crew of suit-and-tie gentleman in “Brotherhood of Men.” After tense board meetings, Frank’s gospel tone celebrates the unconditional fraternity of businessmen by infusing some much-needed soul into the story, accompanied by choreography that is simply a male powerhouse.

Like the choreography, the set design takes full advantage of Halton Theater’s 2,500-square-foot stage. The standing set is a painted-canvas metropolitan backdrop overlaid by the vibrant, geometric walls of the company building, a satiric contrast to the mundane affairs going on inside. Scene changes between cubicles are swiftly executed through the movement of an executive desk or a patent leather sofa, and the impeccable costuming is notable for its detail -- the feathered flip of the secretaries’ classic 60s bangs or their pressed lime green-and-pink skirt suits all reinforce the era’s iconic corporate setting.

The massive stage may gift set design and ensemble-size freedom, but it can also swallow any introverted or apprehensive actors. The diverse cast of veteran and novice thespians makes for an interesting parallel to the central question of the play — what does it really take to achieve success? Part of what makes How to Succeed so endearing is its ability to relate to virtually every working man and woman. Being reduced to twitching distress after a grueling 9-to-5 day — when even coffee breaks are impossible luxuries — is almost a rite of passage in corporate America. But in the songs “Coffee Break” and “Company Way,” the young leads struggle to connect with the satirical corporate experience. Santos finally cracked a genuine smile only a third of the way through the production, tickled by the corny college-pride song he shares with World Wide Wicket Company President J.B. Biggley (Steven B. Martin) in “Grand Old Ivy.”

Not to knock the newbies, but there’s something about the blessing of age and endowment of experience that comes through in a more mature actor’s performance. Although the production may sometimes argue against the musical’s moral in favor of the seasoned professional, CPCC’s entertaining cast of familiar tycoon personalities is still worth a trip uptown.

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Tags: Frank Loesser, CPCC, musical, Tom Hollis, Halton Theater

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