Given the economic climate of the past couple of years, is this really the right time to cheer a scheming, backbiting and unfit rascal businessman as he manipulates his way to the top of a bloated corporation?
Not if it's Daniel Radcliffe who is playing the lovable go-getter J. Pierrepont Finch in a lush revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" that opened Sunday at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.
Radcliffe is doubly brave here. He's tackling his first musical and a tricky role in 2011: A con man with little business acumen who uses insinuation and flattery to get ahead, ultimately destroying his company in the process.
But Radcliffe is so darn adorable in this production led by director Rob Ashford that more than pockets of smitten teenage girls in the audience will be rooting for his unlikely rise from window washer to chairman of the board.
Radcliffe has plenty of help onstage from a very funny and smooth John Larroquette as boss J. B. Biggley, a gifted Christopher J. Hanke as his scheming rival Bud Frump, and the delightful Rose Hemingway as his romantic interest Rosemary Pilkington.
To be blunt, Radcliffe is not a Broadway singer. His voice is nice, but thin and he strains to fill the theater — "American Idol" judge Randy Jackson would call it "pitchy." Somehow it doesn't matter. He works so hard that we're on his side even if he, like his character, doesn't have the creds.
Plus, there's so much here that works: songs by Frank Loesser; a delightfully cynical book about corporate behavior that resonates today; Derek McLane's sets made of massive interlocking cubes; and Catherine Zuber's wickedly clever costumes, not to mention Ashford's cheer-inducing choreography that even takes advantage of Radcliffe's small stature and Larroquette's tall one.
This production celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical and it's only the third time it has made it to Broadway. The last time, Matthew Broderick played Finch. (Ferris Bueller gives way to a wizard.)
Ashford, fresh off his winning "Promises, Promises," has wrung all the modern relevance from this snide critique — based on Shepherd Mead's 1952 satirical book — about management shenanigans and nepotism at the 1960s-era World Wide Wicket Company, including smartly featuring its corporate logo: "www." (Back then, managers also wrote too many memos about there being too many memos.)
Radcliffe first appears rising out of the orchestra pit on window-washing ropes, reading a self-help book about climbing the corporate ladder. (In another smart update, Anderson Cooper follows in the footsteps of Walter Cronkite, who lent his recorded voice for the book's narrator in 1995.)
Soon young Finch is pretending to pull all-night shifts to impress his bosses, lying about his alma mater to make him seem sympathetic, backstabbing colleagues and even purporting to love knitting if it will get him ahead.
"By George, ethical behavior always pays," he innocently says to the audience when a scheme he's hatched gets him to the next rung. If a turn of events falls in his favor — and they always do — a spotlight falls on Radcliffe's grin and a bell sounds.
As he rises, Hemingway's young secretary thinks she's found her future husband. Signaling those turbulent 1960s, the musical contains the seemingly contradictory songs "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" and "A Secretary Is Not a Toy."
Other standout moments include office workers twitching with caffeination in "Coffee Break" and "Paris Original," in which the secretaries show up to a party wearing identical dresses and matching hats. Larroquette and Radcliffe share another terrific moment in "Grand Old Ivy," a wonderfully conceived football dance number.
Finch keeps climbing — and studiously avoiding female entanglements in the form of Rosemary or the office's sexpot "bubble-headed tomato" (a breathy Marilyn Monroe-influenced Tammy Blanchard). Eventually he succumbs to love — and has a Tom Cruise moment on a sofa to prove it.
By the time he reaches the rank of vice president in charge of advertising, Finch is exposed as someone without good ideas. He comes up with a strange way to raise money, one that will send a shiver down anyone's spine who has ever heard about credit default swaps.
"It's a simple matter of taking the convertible debentures from the sinking fund, issuing stock options which are exchangeable for rights, which we then convert into nonvoting common and replace with warrants," Finch says.
It doesn't work. The whole house of cards collapses. But Radcliffe has somehow telegraphed enough personal guts, tenacity and good humor that the audience doesn't hold it against his smarmy character.