Theater Review: Daniel Radcliffe Succeeds

Daniel Radcliffe appears to be an extremely clever young man.

But you already knew that.

Just as you already knew that he’s richer than Princes William or Harry, or that he is, as The New York Times recently called him, “the most famous 21-year-old on the planet.”

Or that he’s already tried to show people he’s more than just a child actor, by taking on Peter Schaffer‘s Equus (and taking off his clothes) on stage in London and New York.

But the question many people have been asking for the past few months is: can the young British actor, who’s starred in one of the most successful movie franchises ever, sing and dance well enough to carry a peculiarly American Broadway musical?

The answer is yes, but it might not be exactly the right question.

Characteristically modest to begin with, Radcliffe made sure to downplay expectations about his song and dance abilities in run-up interviews to How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which opened last night on Broadway.

Sure, it’s a pre-requisite that the actor playing window-washer-turned-executive J. Pierrepont Finch has to have basic competence in singing and dancing, which Radcliffe clearly has.

But it’s crucial for the actor who plays Finch to have a grasp of the comedy part of musical comedy, and Radcliffe hasn’t forgotten that as he’s crafted the role for himself.  All around, it’s an extraordinarily smart performance.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7AL3qpCbJqM

In interviews, Radcliffe has pointed out that the obvious difficulty of playing Finch is that he’s a protagonist who’s just not a very nice guy. In fact, the corporate climber with the omniscient self-help book is a self-centered Machiavelli with no scruples.

Radcliffe knows that the key to getting the character to work is to figure out how to make Finch a likeable scoundrel.

And Radcliffe’s Finch is likeable from the first moment he appears, hoisted up from the orchestra pit in his window-washer’s gear. He’s supposed to be starting at the very bottom, but already he’s triumphal, hovering above stage and audience, even before he’s started on his meteoric ascent up the corporate hierarchy.

Here’s where Radcliffe’s movie star status comes in handy: it certainly doesn’t hurt that large segments of the audience, with Harry Potter on their minds, bring a predisposition to like him. And it’s clear that audiences at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre really like Radcliffe.

Radcliffe, however, doesn’t just rely on audience preconceptions – he works to make Finch likeable – perhaps nowhere more effectively than in the play’s broad comic showstoppers – though this favored stage term isn’t the most useful one in the case of How to Succeed, because the play has so many of them.

For example, it’s not the quality of the singing and dancing that makes “The Company Way” work – it’s the chemistry between Finch and Mr. Twimble (Rob Bartlett), the head of the mailroom whose blind loyalty to the company will guarantee perpetual security. (As relevant as the show is, there are some things that have changed since Frank Loesser’s play opened in 1961.)  Key to the success of the number is the ability to make Finch both deceitfully ambitious and endearing at the same time.

“One of the ironies,” Radcliffe said recently, “is that this is called How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and actually Finch ends up having to work really, really hard even if it’s just to keep up with his own half-truths, as he does in ‘Grand Old Ivy.’”

And it’s in that number that Radcliffe perhaps best displays his gift for comic burlesque. After misleading company president J.B. Biggley (John Larroquette) into thinking they’re alums of the same alma mater, Finch has to pretend he knows the school song. Again, the number calls not for ballet-perfect dancing but for vaudevillian comic timing, which is what Radcliffe brings to it.  It’s all about the humor.

At the same time, Radcliffe’s Finch is human and vulnerable.

“He’s a frightened young kid,” Radcliffe has said of Finch. “There’s no reason to sing ‘I Believe in You’ – unless he’s losing belief in himself.” (His rendition of that song, in particular, recalls that of Robert Morse, the originator of the role.)

Everything Radcliffe does appears to set his character apart from others in the play, from his spectacular entrance to his lighting-enhanced, mugged asides to the audience.

Even his makeup makes him look remarkably pale in contrast to the rest of the cast: with his slicked-back hair he looks like a silent movie comedian, a black-and-white character from an earlier time caught up in the colorful, psychadelic Sixties, with only his how-to book for guidance.

A far cry, clearly, from Daniel Radcliffe himself.

Take a look at some of the other performers who’ve taken on the role of J. Pierrepont Finch.

Robert Morse

Matthew Broderick