Good casting is the heart of an effective production, and when director/choreographer Todd Pearthree cast boyish Bob Tull, he was well on his way to a successful "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
A small, engaging performer who can look bashful and conniving at the same time, Tull is an ideal choice for the lead role of J. Pierrepont Finch, a window washer who, with the aid of a handy self-help book, scales the corporate ladder with lightning speed.
This 1961 musical -- score by Frank Loesser, book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert -- was always intended as a spoof. Even so, the Pulitzer Prize-winning show has more than a few elements that could be deemed objectionable three decades later, when we are presumably more enlightened about such issues as sexual harassment.
The 1995 Broadway revival tinkered with the show to make allowances for this -- most significantly by staging it in bold, cartoon-like strokes. Pearthree follows that example in his playful, swift-paced revival at Cockpit in Court. Bob Jones' set and James Fasching's costumes use a brightly colored palette, and when the secretarial pool performs "A Secretary is Not a Toy," the dancers move like the dolls that do jumping jacks when you pull a string.
The most innovative, modernizing touch Pearthree has added is casting a woman (Kimberly Nolan) as one of the executives. She even participates, "Ally McBeal"-style, in the "I Believe in You" number, which takes places in the executive washroom.
From this small touch to Tull's performance in the lead role, Pearthree has assembled a local dream cast. Brian R. Chetelat, a Jackie Gleason-sized actor with a knack as a comedian as well as a singer, is a gruff teddy bear of a boss as company president J.B. Biggley; Richard W. Lloyd is hilariously gawky as his nerdy, nepotism-minded nephew; and Lauren Spencer-Harris is cheek-pinchingly adorable as Finch's perky love interest. Pearthree also gets strong ensemble work out of the chorus.
One of the few flaws in his production is the weak orchestral accompaniment, under Robert Gee's direction. A solo keyboard player would have been preferable.
Cockpit in Court performs at Essex Community College, 7201 Rossville Blvd. Show times for "How to Succeed" are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. (Saturday's performance will be described for the visually handicapped.) Tickets are $13 and $15. Call 410-780-6369.
"How to Succeed" isn't the only potentially politically incorrect musical on the boards at the start of the local summer season. "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" might not quite qualify as typical family fare, but this 1978 show can be kicky, quirky fun. And, it's receiving a decent -- if that can be said of this subject matter -- revival at Towson University's Maryland Arts Festival.
The musical is a bit of an oddity. Its source is a 1974 Playboy article written by Texas journalist Larry L. King (not to be confused with the talk-show host) about a well-established rural Texas brothel that was put out of business by a crusading TV newsman.
King and Peter Masterson fictionalized and adapted the story for the stage, with songs by Carol Hall. They didn't bother to tack on a happy ending. Instead, the show just sort of drifts off into the sunset, along with the former employees of Miss Mona's Chicken Ranch, as the establishment is known.
At the Maryland Arts Festival, director/choreographer Tom Polum's staging owes a debt to Tommy Tune, who choreographed and co-directed the original. This is most evident in "The Aggie Song," performed by Texas A&M; cheerleaders, each of whom is flanked by two life-sized dummies, tripling the population of the cheerleader squad.
The most touching performance is that of Colleen Gilpin, though she only has a secondary role -- as a waitress with dreams of a better life -- and just one song, which she sings with genuine heart. Libby Tomlinson-Gensler makes a glamorous Miss Mona, but the fate of the Chicken Ranch barely seems to faze her, and there's no perceptible chemistry in her romance with the local sheriff (Shawn Doyle).
Doyle, however, does a fine job with his big song, "Good Old Girl," which he delivers in much softer tones than most of his shouted dialogue. And as the grinning Governor, Chip Meister is a hoot singing about his ability to evade tough issues in "The Sidestep."
"Best Little Whorehouse" has a smattering of four-letter words and a few simulated activities that are a smidge graphic. For the most part, however, this serviceable production is pretty tame. In fact, a little more passion would give the whole show some welcome oomph.
"The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" continues in the Mainstage Theatre in the Towson University's Fine Arts Center, ZTC Osler and Cross Campus drives, through July 18. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. (No performance July 4.) Tickets are $19 and $21. Call 410-830-2787.
The sound of 'Triumph'
"Triumph of Love," the short-lived Broadway musical that had its world premiere at Center Stage, is rising again. Last week the cast reassembled in New York to record the CD for Jay Records, a British company with distribution in the United States.
Expected to be released in the fall, the CD will include a song called "If I Cannot Love," which was written for Betty Buckley but cut after the third preview performance.
James Magruder, the resident dramaturg at Center Stage who wrote the book for "Triumph of Love," attended most of the three-day recording session. "It was a thrilling experience to be in the recording studio," he said. "It just really feels like we're completing the circle."
Magruder added that since the label is British, "We're really hoping it will stimulate interest in a London production. There's talk about that."
In the meantime, Margo Lion, the show's Baltimore-born producer, said "Triumph" will have its first professional post-Broadway production at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre, Sept. 8-Oct. 25. The musical has already made its non-professional debut. Susan Egan, who starred as Princess Leonide in Baltimore and on Broadway, directed a production at the Orange County High School of the Arts last spring.
New life for 'Whistle'
There's also news about another musical that premiered in the area. Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Whistle Down the Wind" is currently in previews at the Aldwych Theatre on London's West End. Opening night is July 1.
Based on a novel by Mary Hayley Bell about three children who meet a stranger they believe is Jesus Christ, the Harold Prince-directed musical canceled its Broadway opening after a troubled tryout at Washington's National Theatre two winters ago. The revamped London production has a new cast and a new director, Gale Edwards, who shares book-writing credits with Lloyd Webber and Patricia Knop.
Pub Date: 6/22/98