The first thing you have to ask yourself is why choose this story. The 1987 Michael J. Fox film was a box-office success, but not a critical favorite, and it sits with below-average reviews on all the important sites ever since. It was, at the time, unfavorably compared with How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. The soundtrack was full of weird originals penned by the movie’s writer/director but sung by famous 1980s rock stars. It seems a strange pick, but not so much when you see what they’ve done with it. And it is WELL worth seeing what they’ve done. This thing is a genuine world premiere and you have the chance to see it before it goes to Broadway. And you should, because it’s a great night of theatre.
It’s a charmer with all new songs by Chicago writers Michael Mahler (October Sky, Diary of a Wimpy Kid) and Alan Schmuckler (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Kidding) full of strong melodies and meaningful, witty lyrics. I can’t stress enough just how good the songs are. I don’t remember the last time I walked out of the premiere of a show singing songs I just heard for the first time. But I did here. Especially the hilarious “You’re A D-Bag Brantley Foster” and the feminist solidarity song “(I Think I) Like You.” The songs are catchy, impactful and move the plot. The actor/singers rip them up because they are terrific. They sound like hits already. Maybe this show will be a hit based on the strength of them alone. Because they, and the cast, are doing all the heavy lifting here.
The incredibly winning cast is led by Billy Harrigan Tighe as Brantley Foster, who is apparently channeling a young Dick Van Dyke as Rob Petrie. He is goofy, innocent and also determined in all the best ways. His corporate rival and love interest is played by the equally strong Sydney Morton, who is measured and controlled and sophisticated to highlight and complement the ways he’s adorkable.
This treatment gets a new book by director Gordon Greenberg (Broadway’s updated Irving’ Berlin’s Holiday Inn and Dracula: A Comedy of Terrors) and Steve Rosen (The Other Josh Cohen), and while it does so very many things right, it’s the greatest weakness in this show. Let me start with something really good. The plot is greatly streamlined and a bunch of stupid and sexist subplots are utterly jettisoned to focus on Brantley’s climb within the company and romance with Christy. The show is updated to today and is full of great pop-culture references and jettisons all the sexist tropes from the 1980s original.
Like in the original, Brantley is from out of town, but instead of Kansas, he’s from St. Cloud Minnesota. His father was a farmer, but got into huge debt and made it so he and his mom had to work at the local canning plant owned by Prescott Corporation. Now that Brantley’s graduated with his MBA, he’s been hired by Prescott as Jr. Business Analyst in the New York Office. His mother, played by Barbara E. Robertson is nothing but a sad stereotype with no legit personality and a nauseatingly thick and cloying fake Minnesotan accent. She’s also super hard to hear in comparison to the rest of the cast and maybe has a faulty battery in her headset. She communicates with Brantley throughout the show via phone and gets a few pretty funny lines. But she mostly exists to beat into the ground the tired trope of the virtue of the country vs. the corruption of the big city – it’s lame and irritating to the point that you are sad when she appears even though she gives vital on the ground information about Prescott Corp and does a great job at being a disappointed mom when she keeps going to voice mail. However, like all the other women in the show, she has agency and that’s great.
Once Brantley makes it to New York after his “32 Hour Bus Ride”. He shows up at Prescott Corp and is handed a pink slip because of downsizing (yet this is never really tied in with the major business plot of the show, that the CEO is engineering a hostile takeover by selling profitable parts of the business to himself through, I presume, shell corporations, because this is never really explained in any meaningful way, which is a huge issue). Brantley goes to the YMCA to stay but returns the next day to convince them they made a mistake. Seeing the CEO Piers Johnson (the hilarious and smarmy Jeremy Peter Johnson), arriving, he tells him how he’s always admired him and the CEO tells them to hire him as a temp.
In the temp pool, Brantley’s terrorized by the power-tripping 80s throwback manager, Garth Portnoy played by Ian Michael Stuart who is humorously awful. As a temp, Brantley’s told to clean the office of the other new analyst that was hired at the same time as him, Carlton Whitfield. While in Carltons’ office a call comes in, Brantley picks it up and speaks to Carlton, whose wife has just had a baby, so he’s taking 3 months paternity leave and won’t be showing up. Brantley hatches a plan and takes over Carlton’s identity, new suit, and office half the time, the other half working in the temp pool. He’s determined to prove himself as the Jr. Analyst he was hired to be, so he plans to do double duty. He hears his biggest rival is someone called Christy, who is a Jr. Analyst on all the big accounts because she’s brilliant.
And here is the major place this script falls down. I don’t think either of the writers has ever worked for a large corporation because every time they get to talking about business, they fling a few buzzwords and move on to the next thing. No one is ever shown to be working. People are still using PAPER, and file folders, which no one does anymore. Yes, it’s a comedy, but if you’re a BUSINESS ANALYST, you’re going to talk about financials in a far more knowledgable way than is shown here. And it is critical that your two heroes are shown to be great at their jobs. It is said that Christy is great and she works long hours, but we never see her do anything that proves how smart she is. It would be a couple of lines of dialogue here and there.
This is something the original Michael J. Fox movie took great care to establish. He looked at the financials and discovered the mismanagement himself. Then he took steps to fix it. Here, it’s a vague handwave in that general direction. In this version Piers has to TELL Brantley and Christy he’s deliberately doing something wrong. They should have caught him by looking at the numbers and uncovering his plot THEMSELVES, which makes them smart and heroes and could have been a song or a short eureka scene.
Christy, in this version, is a young single mom who is being sexually harassed by CEO, Piers Johnson. She is keeping it professional, instead of, like in the original, having an affair with him. She has an absolutely terrific song that sums up the frustration of ambitious women everywhere being pulled in a million directions, doing a ton, and never getting credit “Get it Done”. I saw heads nodding all over the audience. It is mentioned many times that she’s great at her job, and what she’s really doing is Piers’s work, while he does…. No one knows until he reveals his plot.
Piers is an egotistical jackass who loves being important. He wants to have an affair with Christy and tries to maneuver to get her alone, but she outwits him and leaves. He seems to actually care about her as much as he is narcissistically capable of because his big number is the hysterically funny “When You Feel Feelings.” However, he’s also undermining the company by selling off profitable portions to himself through shell purchases, which is revealed by him in badguy exposition instead of being discovered by the supposedly brilliant at business protagonists. This is weak. He’s shown to be good at business while they never are.
Their romance is cute as it is established, and Christy’s mom Rose, (Melody A. Betts) and son Ernie (Kai Edgar) introduced and adorable and non-annoying. Brantley manages to bond with Ernie in a non-irritating way.
Brantley makes one friend in the temp pool, Lester Mann, played by Gabriel Ruiz, a failed musician who has been a temp for 12 years but teaches Brantley the ropes at Prescott. He’s adorable and sweet and gets the best song in the whole show, the aforesaid, “You’re a D-Bag Brantley Foster” because his mom always told him not to swear. The entire song is him swearing at Brantley only not saying any of the words, so it’s a cornucopia of F-yous and Oh my Effing Gs and is absolutely brilliant and brilliantly performed.
As a temp, Brantley is assigned to drive CEO Piers’ wife for a day of errands and shopping. Lester is bitterly jealous because he’s had a crush on Vera for years and she’s never noticed him.
Vera Prescott’s (the excellent Heidi Kettenring) character gets changed utterly from a brainless, jealous socialite to the Chairman of the Board of the company her father built and a successful self-help author in her own right “You Can Have It All.” She becomes friends with Brantley the day he’s her driver because he’s honest with her and she values that. They are both from St. Cloud, which is the first factory her father ever owned. When it’s revealed Piers is working late with Christy, she gives Brantley a beautiful cashmere sweater she’d bought for Piers and sends him on his way leading to one of the best topical jokes in the show. She takes steps on her own behalf to find out what’s going on at the company and with her husband and when she arrives to confront Christy, befriends her instead, with the terrific song “(I Think I) Like You.” As women in the business world, they have much in common.
At the big prep meeting for the stockholder’s meeting that will take place at Vera’s estate, Brantley and Christy replace the documents Piers has crafted with their own accurate numbers. Brantley has Lester help him xerox them for the meeting. Because Piers knows him as Brantley, and everyone else knows him as Carlton, Brantley can’t deliver the documents, so he has Lester do it. (This would be done via Powerpoint at any modern corporation, no printing required, and it would be easy enough to have Lester load a different Powerpoint onto the laptop instead of bringing printed files.) When Piers sees they’re not his cooked numbers, he blames Lester and fires him. (Cuing the “You’re a D-Bag” song).
Piers goes into Carlton’s personnel file and reveals to Christy that Carlton is married with a new baby and has been lying to her. She confronts Brantley and breaks up with him over this. Brantley’s mom calls and tells him the St. Cloud plant has been closed, but they are protesting.
Vera encourages Brantley to come to the Stockholder’s meeting with the real numbers and he does. Lester is there, now as a bartender, along with all the folks that work for the corporation. The Stockholders vote to a tie between Brantley and Christy’s plan vs. Piers’ when the real Carlton shows up with his baby, called in by Brantley, and casts the tie-breaking vote for Brantley’s plan because Carlton has also run the numbers. Much happiness ensues and Vera encourages Lester to sing with the band, which he does, and you can see she’s finally really noticed him. Piers is arrested by the FBI for money laundering and other financial offenses and Vera makes Christy the new CEO and installs Brantley in his rightful job as Jr. Analyst. Happy finale ensues.
All in all, with all of these changes to the original film, it’s a delightful evening. People were laughing out loud. And you will, too. It’s playing through March 29, 2020.
Get tickets at the Paramount Box Office.
Photos by Liz Lauren