You can hear the screaming from around the block; the unmistakable timbre of female hormones unleashed upon the world. The concentration of excited girls and embarrassed adults rapidly increases as you near the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, until the object of their affection finally becomes clear from the chiselled face on the billboard overhead: Glee star Darren Criss is making his Broadway debut, and if this gaggle is anything to go by, that’s a pretty big deal.
Let’s not beat around the bush: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a thoroughly lame musical. It essentially follows the fortunes of an ambitious young window-washer J. Pierrepont Finch as he climbs his way up the corporate ladder, winning the hearts of receptionists and the wrath of colleagues as he goes. And that’s about it. While my complete failure to recall a single line or hum a solitary note from the whole evening could generously be attributed to jetlag or Criss-blindness, I fear it’s much more likely to be because none of it is terribly memorable. Everything builds to the solo show-stopping number “Brotherhood of Man”, but even that fades quickly from memory, while the retro aesthetic and sexual politics of the mid-20th century office setting just seem tacky and crass in this Mad Men era. No, if it wasn’t for someone’s clever idea to turn the piece into a star vehicle, Frank Loesser’s 1961 musical would scarcely justify this Broadway revival.
Not that anyone in this audience is likely to care: artistic merit does not figure highly when there’s a dreamboat in a bow-tie strutting his stuff on stage. Darren Criss oozes charisma from his every pore and possesses enough star quality to silence any criticism of celebrity casting. He exudes youthful energy alongside co-star Beau Bridges – evidently new to the role of J. B. Biggley, the sweetly bumbling boss Finch schmoozes on his way to the top – and copes admirably with the physical demands of the college football routine in “Grand Old Ivy” (‘it’s Blaine being Kurt being Beyonce’ I think to myself, mind duly blown).
Yet Criss could stand silently on that stage for three hours and the Gleeks would be happy: indeed, it is precisely those moments when a spotlight picks out his smiling face as the scheming Finch triumphs against the odds that sends the crowd into raptures. At first, there is an uncomfortable tension between the wholesome boyishness Criss brings to the stage as ‘Ponty’, and the role that has actually been written – a single minded automaton, hell bent on corporate success and thoroughly odious as a result. Yet as the character softens at the hand of a good woman (understudy Stephanie Rothenberg as Rosemary Pilkington justifying the entire feminist movement as she saccharinely trills how she is “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm”), the likeable actor and unlikeable character start to feel more comfortable as one.
When a celebrity stars, the stage seems crowded with personas. There are the various faces of Criss of course, and the propensity of both Finch and his Glee character Blaine Anderson to wear natty suits with bow-ties further blurs the lines between fiction and fiction. Then there is the shadow of Daniel Radcliffe who played Finch before, the ghost of Finch-yet-to-come Nick Jonas*, and perhaps most disturbingly of all Harry Potter seems to put in an appearance at some point, although whether its the Rowling, Radcliffe or Criss** incarnation who can possibly say! When any actor stands before us in role it is a constant struggle to decipher who we see. The actor and character seemingly vie for our attention, and it is a rare presence that makes us forget any life other than that immediately before us. This problem is only compounded by the baggage celebrity brings, as it becomes harder to separate the person on stage from the idealised image that exists in our minds. In any other production this could be problematic, but here the appeal of the star is so prominent it becomes part of the show itself.
While cashing in on the allure of celebrity, How to Succeed… never once pretends to be something it is not. Meanwhile, Darren Criss proves that he is capable of much more than this role, or the trappings of celebrity, may suggest. Worth flying across the Atlantic for? I should say so.***
*Criss stars until 22nd January when his role is taken over by Nick Jonas.
* For those of you not entirely au fait with your Youtube musical sensations, Criss wrote and starred in the title role of the viral hit A Very Potter Musical while at the University of Michigan.
***While the production itself admittedly only merits two stars, the whole Criss experience is, as you may have gathered, off the chart.