The star’s cause is not bolstered much by director-choreographer Rob Ashford. His concept for the early ’60s satire of American business — the story of a smarmily engaging young man who lies his way to the top — is to stylistically turn up the volume, saturating the stage in candy colors and frantic dances. As a result, the musical’s digs at corporate life, at the overgrown bureaucracy and ingrown elitism, lose the whiff of sophistication that Frank Loesser’s score emits.
“Grand Old Ivy,” Finch’s droll bamboozling of the company’s beleaguered top dog, J.B. Biggley (John Larroquette), is turned here into an overcaffeinated number that has overtones of the frenetic mechanics of inferior works like “Legally Blonde, the Musical.” Biggley’s college fight song has been elevated to veritable athletic event, with Radcliffe trying to execute football moves and other acrobatics, along with a corps of male dancers. You can see the concentration on Radcliffe’s face as he tries to keep up, and it’s a little painful to watch. (A sharper production might have found ways to turn Radcliffe’s challenges into a disarming shtick.)
The aggressive attention to the surface of the musical — Catherine Zuber’s “Mad Men’’-era costumes dance a matchy-matchy jig with Derek McLane’s beehive backdrop of blinking lights — obscures the wit of the book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, which with Loesser’s score was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. And the casting in general feels odd. The cagey Larroquette as the butt of the joke? Come on! Once upon a time, he might have been a pretty good Finch, in point of fact.
Only Tammy Blanchard’s offbeat Hedy La Rue, the bombshell toxic to everyone except the executive who’s squiring her, earns the requisite laughs. Radcliffe, meanwhile, sings the infectious tunes — “Rosemary,” “I Believe in You,” “Brotherhood of Man” — adequately, a level of accomplishment that appears to be satisfactory to his armies of fans. On the night I was there, they filled the balcony, clapping wildly — not so much for Finch, though, as for the hero of Hogwarts.
If “How to Succeed” charts the downside for a show with a wanting pivotal performance, another recently opened musical, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” demonstrates the benefits when a surprising central portrayal takes the spotlight. The happier trajectory occurs thanks to Tony Sheldon, who plays a drag artist of certain age on an unlikely bus ride into the Australian Outback in this appealingly hokey jukebox musical.