Ilyse Robbins has done it again. The director-choreographer who made her production of "Thoroughly Modern Millie" the must-see musical of 2013, returns to Stoneham to work her magic on "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." Robbins takes this dated warhorse and infuses it with movement, wit, and the effervescence of an ensemble enjoying every minute of their performances.
Frank Loesser's 1961 musical champions an ambitious, amoral corporate ladder climber named J. Pierrepont Finch who meticulously follows the instructions in his "How to Succeed" book (mellifluously voiced by TV personality Scott Wahle) to transform himself from window washer to corporate executive. Along the way, he antagonizes his fellow paper pushers, foils the plans of the boss's whiny nephew, and inexplicably wins the heart of a young secretary whose dream revolves around being "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm." It's "Mad Men" without the sly self-awareness.
But Robbins knows this show requires performers who can add their own personalities to the bland book and have fun with Loesser's delightful score. She starts by casting the role of Finch with newcomer Tyler Bradley Indyck, a performer who can make the smarmiest dialogue sound sincere and the most manipulative advancements feel innocent and winning. "Rosemary," which to me always plays like an awkward love song, is hilarious and believable because of Indyck's pantomime. In the ultimate narcissistic number, "I Believe in You," which is sung to the mirror in the men's executive washroom, Indyck's performance is so pure and unadorned, you'll find yourself rooting for him despite his blind ambition.
For the role of Rosemary, Finch's love interest, Robbins taps the incomparable Ephie Aardema, who was so winning in the title role of "Thoroughly Modern Millie." Rather than play her as dim-witted, Aardema's Rosemary has ambition that matches Finch's, she just has a different goal. Just in case we weren't sure, the secretarial pool, led by Smitty (the powerhouse Ceit Zweil) reminds Rosemary in the number "Cinderella, Darling."
Robbins fills out the company with the accomplished comedian Neil A. Casey as J.B. Biggley, the president of the company, and newcomer Angelo McDonough, who channels Nathan Lane as Finch's irritating nemesis Bud Frump. The combination of experienced veterans and newbies seems to push everyone on the stage to up their game.
And that is the pleasure of this production. This 19-member cast doesn't apologize for the show's themes or push the satire that's already in the script. They play it straight, and the humor and honesty of these characters come through in unexpected ways. Of course it doesn't hurt that the company includes Aimee Doherty as the femme fatale, Sarah deLima as the president's secretary, and Robert Saoud in dual roles as the milquetoast head of the mailroom and the tough-talking chairman of the board.
Robbins also understands the brisk tempo this musical needs, and she keeps it moving with expressive choreography that even makes the numerous scene changes flow smoothly. She showcases her talented dancers and smartly lets Russell Garrett, as the unctuous Bratt, bring down the house, along with the rest of the company men, with a high-energy response to "I Believe in You."
Jim Rice keeps his six-piece orchestra lively without ever rushing, and Jenna McFarland Lord's flexible set and John Eckert's clever lighting changes serve Robbins's vision for the show.
Though numbers like "The Company Way" and "A Secretary Is Not a Toy" feel like throwbacks to a bygone era, Robbins's celebratory production makes this "How To" an unqualified success.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock,and Willie Gilbert. Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser. Based upon the book by Shepherd Mead.
Directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins. Presented by Stoneham Theatre.
At: Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main St., Stoneham, through June 7. Tickets: $50-$55, 781-279-2200,www.stonehamtheatre .org
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.