Muhlenberg Summer Theatre Program has been around as long as I can remember. Celebrating 38 years and going strong. It’s been a good 15 years since I’ve been back and I’m kicking myself for it. Just over an hour from Philly tucked away in the suburban streets of Allentown makes for a beautiful day trip.
Being a CBS Big Brother fan as well as a lover of musicals, I was eager to see Frankie J. Grande star in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Knowing that Grande has a history on Broadway in several ensemble shows like Mamma Mia and Rock of Ages as well as and having a larger than life TV and Social Media persona, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
A 60s satire following a young window washer who uses the book “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” as his bible to climbing the corporate ladder. The principal role of J. Pierrepont Finch was originally played on Broadway by Robert Morse (movie too!) and Matthew Broderick in the revival. Both character actors with Gumby-like abilities. It is clear Director Charles Richter collaborated with Grande on making this leading character his own. It made for a highly entertaining and rejuvenating experience at the theatre.
When taking a big-name artist to star in any production, it is best to cater the role to the artist at hand. This was a prime example of taking Grande’s showmanship and putting it on display. His Finch was cute and sweet and unknowingly debonair. Although a conniving character who sabotages his way to the top, he does so with elegance and charm. He could give a master class on takes to the audience. Every time he did, it was as if a sparkle gleam bounced from his teeth to the crowd like on a toothpaste commercial. His eyes glanced the house continuing to lean us in for more. His training as a dancer was on full display with acrobatics, pirouettes, and a full-on tap number taking a throw-away song and making it a showstopper in “Old Ivy”.
I think the biggest accolades for Grande come from his history as a “chorus boy”. He knows how to share the stage with his peers. Although his social media persona shows his personality as larger than life, he did not mug or steal the stage from any of his co-horts. Quite the contrary, there were several impeccable standouts. Meredith Kate Doyle plays Rosemary Pilkington, a doe-eyed secretary hopelessly in love with love. Often, watching women portrayed in the 50s and 60s in cringeworthy, as they were written chauvinistically. Again, Richter takes Doyle’s portrayal and makes it near cartoonish. Enough that we know it’s absurd like in “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” but still with enough heart that we fall in love with her in “I Believe in You”. Rosemary’s work bestie Smitty, played by Kelly Shannon has Ethel Merman-like pipes. I’ve always felt that the plum role in H2$ is Bud Frump, and Zach Love proves the case. Love has a Josh Gad flare with old school musical theatre charm. He is impishly aware in every scene and gives a one two punch to every comedic punchline. Adding to the plot twist is adulterer and CEO J.B Biggley and his mistress Hedy LaRue as played by Peter Schmidt and Samantha Simon respectively. Schmidt was like a calm version of Gene Hackman. I wished he had a little more Hackman “Hoosiers” in this role to really bring the gusto of a top-notch barracuda exec. Hedy LaRue is written like a Betty Boop pin-up style “bimbo”. Here again, Simon plays her with a bit more sophistication and class. I applaud Richter for being hyper aware of feminism while still being true to the script as written by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert.
The ensemble is chock full of collegiate and regional talent. With musical direction by Bryan L. Wade and killer choreography by Karen Dearborn guiding there way, these triple threats take no prisoners in one show-stopping number after another. “Coffee Break” could be heard right about now in every corporate gig across America. Grande leading “Brotherhood of Man” and the end of Act II was of epic proportions. I am a sucker for an all-male musical theatre dance number. I turned to my friend and said, “I need to see this number one more time”.
Richter and his design team truly married the production values together seamlessly. The entire show was like a color-forms activity book. 3-dimensional set by John Raley, 2-dimensional props by Katrina Miller (who deserves cover billing), bright and expertly paired costumes by Hunter Kaczorowski, and cheerful lighting by Gertjan Houben. The venue at the Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance is impeccable. Some fantastic lighting instruments, exceptional fly systems, and great acoustics (Sound Designed by Ian Scot). I would also like to applaud the cast for so wonderfully styling their own hair. Big, buoyant, stylized. Other than one actress and one actor, there were no wigs!
Muhlenberg Summer Theatre program brings three big productions this summer, with How to Succeed being its middle run. Ending the season is with TAL Beyond Imagination. Although a smaller house than most Regional Theatres, it should not go unnoticed. With Philadelphia and NY just an hour away, this theatre packs a punch and is worth your attention.
How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying plays July 11-29. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Tickets for the first four shows are $35 regular admission. Senior tickets are $31, student tickets (ages 19-22) are $20, and youth tickets (18 and under) are $17. For the rest of the run, regular tickets are $41, senior tickets are $37, student tickets are $24, and youth tickets are $21. Groups of 15+ are $25 per person, $16 for students and youth.
Tickets can be purchased online at muhlenberg.edu/smt or by phone at 484-664-3333. Performances are in Baker Theatre in the Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.
Fun Fact: Frankie J. Grande is the older brother of pop-star Ariana Grande. Both she and her SNL fiance, Pete Davidson, were in attendance at the matinee performance. They snuck in as the show started and left before the final bow as to not take away from Grande himself. A class act.