The Theater Group at Santa Barbara City College has chosen to open its 2019-2020 season with a throwback to the early 1960s. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying comes from a time before the rise of the counterculture, when Americans were just beginning to perceive the limitations of the conformism of the 1950s. The premise of the show is a simple one: Young J. Pierrepont Finch (Ryan Ostendorf) is a Manhattan window washer who dreams of landing a job in business and ascending the corporate ladder. It’s a question of climbing the inside, rather than the outside, of one of the era’s iconic skyscrapers. He picks up the self-help book that lends the show its tongue-in-cheek title, and, through a series of increasingly unlikely misunderstandings, rises to become director of advertising and then chairman of the board of Worldwide Wickets, a cartoon company filled with conniving employees and corruption.
His inside ally and love interest, Rosemary Pilkington (Ciara Tolliver), may only be a secretary, but she knows a lot about how the corporate game is played. Tolliver has a wonderful voice and a great feeling for the role. The show revs up for every scene she’s in, and there are other strong performances, such as Marisol Miller-Wave as the boss’s mistress, Hedy La Rue, and Zachary Allen Thompson as Finch’s chief rival, Bud Frump. Tracy Kofford and Chloe Grace Roberts provided the exciting choreography, and Pat Frank’s set is spectacular.
While the songs by the great Frank Loesser are catchy, How to Succeed struggles against its own cultural inertia. There are no people of color working at Worldwide Wickets, and no women in positions of power. The show’s most famous number, “A Secretary Is Not a Toy,” may express an anti-sexist viewpoint, but in the context of this show, that kind of awareness can only be a joke. The play runs through July 27. See theatergroupsbcc.com.