Theater: Daniel Radcliffe "Succeeds" on Broadway

Actor Daniel Radcliffe will turn 22 during his run in the new revival of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (on July 23, to be exact). If he wanted to, he could probably turn 23 and still be in it -- the show fits him like a glove and audiences are eating it up. Heck, they cheered the chorus girls the night I caught it and you just know an audience is having fun when they start applauding loudly even before the movie and TV stars appear for their curtain call.

For the record, Radcliffe is trying and does succeed pretty darn well -- and without grading him on a curve. He moves well and his adequate voice is okay enough for the not-so-vocally demanding role of that corporate schemer J. Pierpont Finch. ("F-I-N-C-H," as he so helpfully makes clear to all and sundry.) Matthew Broderick was the last person to lead a revival of the show on Broadway and they pair off well together.

Neither is a born singer but the great score by Frank Loesser is easy on the lead. Both have charm to spare (something Radcliffe reveals here more than ever before) and an easy complicity. Neither is terribly tall, which is especially useful for our hero now; he may be running rings around the competition as he rises swiftly to the top of the World Wide Widget company ("www" which gives the whole show a modern flair), but he's also small. Even though he's smarter than anyone else, you can't help feeling he's an underdog.

The show -- rather sexless in an interesting way - feels as modern as ever, despite silly concerns about songs like "A Secretary is Not A Toy." Looking out for yourself, seeing a company as a stepping stone rather than a home, seeing your coworkers as competitors instead of friends, being so focused on career you don't even bother with a personal life -- sounds familiar, doesn't it?

It helps when the tale of a window washer rushing up the ladder of success is filled with fun numbers like 'Coffee Break" and "Rosemary" (in which our hero unexpectedly discovers romance, only to soon put it aside while he leaps ever higher).

Radcliffe's Broadway debut was in Equus, in which he showed a certain amount of stage presence despite being cast as a rough, country lad, a role he most certainly was not suited for. He's grown tremendously here and owns the stage rather charmingly, right down to mouthing "cheers" during his curtain call.

Two other crucial roles don't score highly. Rose Hemingway is okay as the secretary who loves him and longs to keep his dinner warm (in New Rochelle!), but certainly doesn't put her stamp on the role or ever get beyond a vague niceness. Worse, the main foil for Finch is supposed to be the boss's nephew, Bud Frump. He's the corporate climber we're supposed to dislike -- our hero gets by on his wits and sucking up (cleverly) while Bud just complains to his mother, who is the sister of his boss's wife. But Christopher J. Hanke fails to nail almost any of the humor in his part. He's a handsome fellow but his voice is so-so and his delivery poor. Lines that should kill just sort of peter out, though he has a good physical command of his body and does well in the dancing.

The other key roles are much better. Emmy winner John Larroquette makes his Broadway debut in solid form as the boss, J.B. Biggley. Without overplaying it, he milks every laugh out of every line he's given. Director and choreographer Rob Ashford even makes smart use of Larroquete's height compared to Radcliffe in the rousing Act One tune "Grand Old Ivy." His mistress is played by Tammy Blanchard, who also shows wise restraint in a part that can be pure caricature. Their romantic number together -- "Love From A Heart Of Gold" -- gets by purely on the chemistry of the two. As a bonus of sorts, Larroquette's voice is so modest it makes even Radcliffe's singing seem robust.

MIchael Park (who was exceptional in this season's excellent new play Middletown) does strong work as a corporate exec and deserves bigger roles in the future. And Ellen Harvey has a blast as Miss Jones, especially with her warbling on "Brotherhood Of Man" (inserted perhaps to give some vocal spark to the big dance finale in which Radcliffe shined as a hoofer but obviously could not belt out over that chorus).

I keep coming back to the idea that the best actors didn't overplay roles that can be rather broad. Perhaps it has to do with the sleek, Sixties-mod look of the sets by Derek McLane and excellent lighting by Howell Binkley for this How To Succeed. They create a vivid, genuine corporate world, as opposed to what I remember as a more cartoonish feel for the Broderick revival. (Which I also enjoyed.) It has the feel I imagine the new musical Catch Me If You Can will be shooting for.

Ashford's strong staging and choreography are filled with grace notes and clever touches, from the mailroom clerks passing around packages with their feet to the hilarious "Grand Old Ivy" (in which Radcliffe pantomimes playing football and is carried backwards in slow motion to amusing effect) to that rousing climax "Brotherhood Of Man," in which our hero really delivers on his toes, thanks to very clever moves that show him off to the best possible effect.

And yet, the dancing overall was solid but not spectacular. So how can a show where the male lead isn't really a singer and the female lead didn't wow and the main villain underwhelmed get three stars? Hey, that's the beauty of live theater. A great show delivering on the technical front with panache and boasting one of the more tuneful scores in Broadway history can be a lot of fun, especially with a charismatic lead, powerhouse vocals or not.

And if Radcliffe chooses his next role wisely -- a romantic comedy or flat-out farce, I think -- he will continue to grow as an actor and keep packing them in. Just like How To Succeed surely will. And when he steps away from the show (as inevitably he will) and they need to find a replacement, might I suggest Neil Patrick Harris? (You can see Harris in a concert version of Company at LIncoln Center April 7-9.)

THE 2010-2011 THEATER SEASON (ratings on a four star system)

Blood Ties ***
Fellowship * 1/2
Fingers and Toes ** 1/2
Frog Kiss *** 1/2
The Great Unknown ** 1/2
Nighttime Traffic **
Our Country *
PopArt *
Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical ** 1/2
Show Choir **
Tess: The New Musical **
Trav'lin' ***
Without You *** 1/2

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.

Note: Michael Giltz was provided with tickets to the show with the understanding that he would be writing a review.

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