My high school drama teacher had a unique approach to watching plays. It wasn't the leads he focused on but rather those of us relegated to background roles. You could be portraying a dialogue-less set-piece, but if you broke character for even a second, he'd catch you. While attending Summer Stock Austin's production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, I decided to apply his method.
During the opening ensemble number, my eyes scanned the chorus, stopping at a performer situated so far stage right that I had to crane my neck to see him. This young man, on tiptoe with his body contorted mid-dance move, stood frozen with Zenlike stillness. Silently marveling at this supporting player's dedication (and balance), I realized what my former teacher was getting at.
An intensive musical theatre program for high school and college thespians, Summer Stock Austin marries enthusiasm and experience. Students work alongside theatre professionals and university faculty to mount three productions in three weeks, then run them in rep for three more. The first to open this summer is How to Succeed, which follows quick-witted window washer J. Pierrepont Finch on his way up the corporate ladder. It's a classic story about dreaming big and reaching goals – and it's the enthusiasm of this production, exemplified here by one dedicated chorus boy, that hammers these themes home.
A passionate ensemble is often a telling reflection of the time and effort put into a show. In that regard, this How to Succeed displays elbow grease from nearly everyone involved. Between the intricate visual gags staged by director and SSA co-founder Ginger Morris, and the blocking of choreographers Taylor Edward and Sara Burke enlivening every corner of Ia Ensterä's sprawling set, nothing sells this sendup of Sixties extravagance more than the actors leaving it all onstage.
Feeding off the ensemble's infectious energy are predominantly college-aged leads. In the role of upstart Finch, Ithaca College sophomore Tristen Tierney displays a wide-eyed pep that's grounded by the headstrong portrayal of love interest Rosemary by rising Oklahoma City University junior Maddie Reese. Meanwhile, as boorish boss J.B. Bigley and his outrageous mistress, Hedy La Rue, Texas State University senior Holden Fox and Arizona State University junior Greta Perlmutter aptly navigate the sexist satire of an oft problematic script with tongue-in-cheek comedic chops.
Despite Morris' best efforts to rein in the cast's fervor, How to Succeed's roller-coaster pace is vulnerable to dialogue slip-ups; momentarily missed tech cues can noticeably throw off this speedy tempo. Furthermore, actors occasionally come across like they're performing in a bubble, treating performances as personal auditions – something most evident when actors talk over one another, more focused on delivering their own lines than creating an organic exchange.
These flaws, however, can mostly be forgiven, for they're the side effects of a raw excitement that makes Summer Stock Austin's How to Succeed a fitting selection for this cast and crew. The combined vigor of the leads and chorus members ensures the world of big business feels as daunting and spry as ever. This shared gusto bolsters the production's main takeaway: In the professional world (as on the stage), a little heart and moxie goes a long way.
As the vim established in Act I's chorus number spilled into Act II and continued through the climax, I couldn't help but think back to my former teacher's eye for detail. Sometimes it takes a high school chorus member balancing on his tiptoes, far from where one could reasonably expect an audience's eyes to roam, to prove to the old cliche: There are no small parts, only small actors.