Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Broadway Center Stage:
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Kennedy Center
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's review of Botticelli in the Fire

Betsy Wolfe, Joaquina Kalukango, and Skylar Astin
Photo by Teresa Wood
Some people in 1962 may have been puzzled when How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a splashy musical satire of big business, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, but the recent Broadway Center Stage production of the classic musical in the Eisenhower Theater at Washington's Kennedy Center shows that it remains relevant more than 50 years after its premiere.

The creation of composer-lyricist Frank Loesser and bookwriter Abe Burrows (along with co-authors Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, who did not share the Pulitzer Prize) originated in the era of "Mad Men," with powerful and imperious businessmen (emphasis on men) squashing their underlings and hitting on their secretaries. Still, the points it raises about corporate culture—the conflation of conformity with job security, the jockeying for position, even an early take on anti-harassment training—are just as sharp today. (Maybe even more so, as the finale suggests that a poseur who has risen to the top of a corporation might try politics next.)

The Broadway Center Stage series presents semi-staged versions of musicals in very brief runs, allowing talent from Broadway and Hollywood to participate. The cast is off book and does a knockout job down the line, under the strong direction of Marc Bruni and Denis Jones' choreography (most memorably, the contortions and headstands of "Coffee Break").

Skyler Astin, a bouncy young man best known for the Pitch Perfect movies, is adorable as J. Pierrepont Finch, the ambitious window washer whose climb to the top relies on shading the truth, sucking up to the right people, and casting blame where it's convenient. He does it all with a goofy, innocent charm that suggests Robert Morse, who originated the role in 1961 and stars in the 1967 movie version, and a sweet singing voice.

The character of Rosemary Pilkington, the secretary who sees an attachment to Finch as her way out of the steno pool, was always a master manipulator—see how she maneuvers Finch into asking her to lunch. Betsy Wolfe just makes the character more contemporary; her coyness is transparent, her determination obvious.

John Michael Higgins, familiar from his "mockumentary" film work with Christopher Guest, is a delightfully stuffy J.B. Biggley, the CEO of World Wide Wickets. (What's a wicket? Who cares?) Pompous when challenged, forgiving toward those he sees as giving him proper respect, doting on his "friend" Hedy LaRue (Becki Newton, va-va-voom and obviously smarter than she lets on), doing a zany cheerleader routine with Astin, he is great fun to watch.

In smaller roles, Joaquina Kalukango is underused as Rosemary's friend Smitty; John Bolton squeezes every bit of humor out of Bert Bratt, the rubber-legged head of personnel; and the incomparable Michael Urie (last seen in Washington playing Hamlet for the Shakespeare Theatre Company) nails the petulance and withering wit of Bud Frump, Finch's rival and a poster boy for nepotism. And then there's Washington favorite Nova Y. Payton as BiggleyÂ’s secretary, a small role that blasts off when she joins the men in the rousing, stage-filling "Brotherhood of Man" production number.

Kennedy Center
Broadway Center Stage: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
June 6th - 10th, 2018
Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Based on the book by Shepherd Mead
J. Pierrepont Finch: Skylar Astin
Milt Gatch/Tonybee: Tally Sessions
Joe Jenkins: Dwayne Clark
Tackaberry: Sean Bell
Twimble/Wally Womper: Michael McGrath
J.B. Biggley: John Michael Higgins
Rosemary Pilkington: Betsy Wolfe
Bert Bratt: John Bolton
Smitty: Joaquina Kalukango
Bud Frump: Michael Urie
Miss Jones: Nova Y. Payton
Hedy LaRue: Becki Newton
Miss Krumholtz: Katerina Papacostas
Johnson/Ovington/TV Announcer: Vishal Vaidya
Matthews: Harris Milgrim
Peterson: Colin Cunliffe
Davis: Casey Garvin
Scrubwomen: Kaitlyn Davidson, Shina Ann Morris
Ensemble: Darius Barnes, Eloise Kropp, Kristin Piro, Diana Vaden
Director: Marc Bruni
Choreographer: Denis Jones
Music Director: Todd Ellison
Eisenhower Theater, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
2700 F St. NW, Washington, DC
Ticket Information: (800) 444-1324 or (202) 467-4600 or