A few weeks back, during spring break at the Boston Conservatory, I took advantage of the brief semester hiatus to hightail it down to New York to see as many shows as possible. (I mean, duh.) One of the shows that I was supposed to see was the revival of Evita, but, as you may have heard, that production had to cancel two performances because the "deluge curtain" at the Marquis Theatre accidentally went off. And one of those performances was the one I was scheduled to attend. Waah waah.
I was on the bus to NYC when I heard my show had been canceled. Never one to waste an available show slot, I whipped out my iPhone, fired up BroadwayBox, and started scanning the titles to find another show. I already had tickets for Once, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Ghost, whereas Newsies, Leap of Faith, and Nice Work If You Can Get It hadn't started performances yet.
So, I thought I'd take the opportunity to revisit one of last season's shows, particularly now that there have been some significant cast changes. I had really enjoyed How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with Daniel Radcliffe (read my review), particularly the smart, fun choices from director/choreographer Rob Ashford, so I figured the production might be worth another viewing now that Nick Jonas has taken over the lead role. Although the prospect of wading through throngs of Jonas groupies wasn't appealing in the least, I figured that the show itself - and this production in particular - were strong enough to withstand the shrieks and sighs of the newly hormonal.
Yeah, bad idea. The squealing adolescents, however, weren't really the problem. The production seems to have descended into a competition among the current cast members to see who can mug the most. It wasn't really clear what the problem was, but one of two things must have happened. This production of How to Succeed recently passed its one-year anniversary, so it's possible that the people who are still with the show have gotten bored and have started to push for cheap laughs to keep things interesting. Most egregious in this respect were original cast members Michael Park as Mr. Bratt and Rob Bartlett as Twimble, both of whom have let their performances become so broad, it's a wonder they can fit through the stage door of the Hirschfeld.
It's also possible that the problem is coming from the top, and that the show's new lead performers are leading the rest of the cast astray. Nick Jonas delivers most of his lines with an oily air of self-satisfaction that is rather repugnant. Whereas Daniel Radcliffe was charming and understated as Finch, Jonas is smug and smarmy. I mean, just look at that smirk on the Playbill cover. (I must admit that the score for H2$ is a lot more in Jonas's idiom than that of Les Miserables. Jonas played Marius in the recent 25th Anniversary concert production of Les Miz, and he was so out-classed by his cast mates, both vocally and in terms of acting prowess, that it was sort of an embarrassment to watch. Plus his singing was so nasal, I thought his sinuses would explode.)
But if Jonas hams it up as Finch, that's nothing compared to what Beau Bridges does as J.B. Biggley. Bridges clearly knows that John Larroquette got big laughs as Biggley, even winning a Tony in the process. But Beau Bridges is no John Larroquette, at least when it comes to comedy. Rather than craft an individual performance, Bridges seems to have merely watched a video of Larroquette in action, and then attempted to dial the comedy up to eleven. It doesn't work. The sweat shows, and nothing kills comedy faster. At one point Bridges made what was clearly meant to be a comedic exit, huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf, which was met with near silence from the matinee audience. Bridges seemed undeterred, although you could tell he was thinking, "Hey, folks, this stuff is funny, y'know? Where are all the laughs?"
Well, whether Jonas and Bridges are the cause of all the mugging, or the supporting cast members are setting the desperate tone, the production is unraveling. I'm told that the production stage manager is responsible for keeping such excesses in check, but clearly something is amiss here. It's gotten to the point where Tammy Blanchard as Hedy Larue has changed her performance entirely. When I first saw How to Succeed a year ago, Blanchard played Larue as a sort of lovable ditz, but now she plays the entire show as though the character is drunk. That's a fairly major shift. I'm sure there are other examples of performers in long runs making such drastic changes, but I honestly can't recall ever hearing of such a complete performance overhaul.
Not all long-running shows fall prey to such a degenerative impulse. Watch for my review of Anything Goes, now starring Stephanie J. Block as Reno Sweeney. If anything, that production has only gotten better, despite a lengthy run and numerous changes in cast.