By Caryn James | James on Screens March 27, 2011 at 11:59AM
Determined to prove that he’s more than Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe keeps turning up on Broadway in image-shattering roles - that makes sense – in shows that are dated and backward looking. That is the baffling part.
He convinced us he can do intense drama by getting naked and stabbing horses in the eye in Equus, a 70’s play that doesn’t hold up at all. Now he’s singing and dancing in a thoroughly retro production of the 60’s chestnut How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. If you like your 60’s period pieces Mad Men style, with a twist, this straightforward show is not for you.
Radcliffe doesn’t have to prove he can act anymore, but he does. There’s a winning twinkle in his eye as ambitious J. Pierrepont Finch, who rises from window washer to vice-president of a major company with the help of a guidebook and a talent for undermining his colleagues while looking innocent.
Singing and dancing are not Radcliffe’s gifts. His voice is light, his dancing fairly minimal and most striking in its athleticism as he leapfrogs over people and does cartwheels. Musically, he gets by, with a lot of effort showing.
The problem isn’t Radcliffe, who's charming; it’s the production, which plunges us into the 60’s as if we’re entering a time machine. The set design, a honeycomb on several levels, evokes go-go dancers and office cubicles, and the giant WWW company logo stands for World Wide Widgets, not web.
The women, in pastel dresses with matching shoes, are all secretaries. The company men sing, “A Secretary Is Not a Toy” with no hint that today it would be an object lesson in an H.R. seminar on sexual harassment. Finch’s marriage-minded love interest sings, “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” with such utter sincerity we might as well be in Little House On the Prairie instead of the 60’s.
A brilliant new musical like The Book of Mormon reinvents old Broadway genres. At the very least, a revival - even one with songs by the great Guys and Dolls composer Frank Loesser - needs some angle on the past for the retro element to work, and there’s none evident in Rob Ashford’s direction and choreography for How to Succeed.
But John Larroquette, whom I associate with sitcoms I’d never watch, is wonderfully funny as the company president, putting a lively spin on tired lines. And there’s a contemporary kick in hearing Anderson Cooper’s voice as the narrator of Finch’s guidebook, a role originated by Walter Cronkite.
One of Radcliffe’s huge moments should be the solo “I Believe in You,” sung looking into a mirror; it’s too timid. He does better in two big musical numbers. The fight song “Grand Old Ivy” has him racing around in a mock football game, and “Brotherhood of Man” is a belting, chorus-line number near the end. Both had the preview audience cheering, but it’s a long way to go for those scenes.
There are, in fact, two different audiences for the show, neither likely to be completely satisfied. Passionate Harry Potter fans, even women who have grown up along with Radcliffe, aren’t going to respond to the warmed-over 60’s on stage. The standard Broadway audience includes the women who were sitting behind me, recalling with a touch of deja vu that the 90’s revival of the show starred Matthew Broderick. “He has the same look as this boy,” one of them said. This boy? I’m pretty sure she wasn’t quoting J.K. Rowling’s description of Harry as “The boy who lived.”
I have to think that Radcliffe could have found a fresher singing/dancing show. Or maybe he really is, as he has suggested in interviews, a closet nerd devoted to the History Channel. Whatever, I’m still fascinated by what he’ll do next.
Here he is in real life, lowering expectations about his dancing, in conversation with director/choreographer Ashford.