Darren Criss in “How to Succeed”: “Mediocrity is not a mortal sin”

Two warnings:

A) DO NOT READ THIS if you are seeing Darren Criss in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and don’t want to be spoiled. I’m not holding back

B) Yes, I’m a fangirl but no, this is not going to be a bunch of me flailing about.  There will not be gushing so stay if you were worried about that or leave if you don’t want to hear anything but.

Ok, on to my review:

In the world of musical theater, a performance from an actor can usually be divided into three areas: dancing, singing and acting. Performers that can do all three are called “triple threats” and truthfully there are only a handful of actors in each generation that can be called that (Sutton Foster is one for example).  We’re lucky to get actors that can do two of these areas excellent and the third decent. Mostly, we get actors that can do a little of all three, never truly excelling at any.

How did Mr. Criss do? Honestly, putting my fangirl aside, I didn’t think he was all that good.

Dancing: Excellent

He’s a damn good dancer. He can do more than move, he can actually dance. He has form and poise, energy and sharpness. When he danced with the “professional” ensemble dancers, he blended right in as if he’s been doing this his whole life, as if two weeks of rehearsal was a week and a half more than he needed to learn this challenging, strenuous choreography. He was a joy to watch when dancing. The highlight being, of course, “Brotherhood of Man” – the exuberant 11 o’clock number that brought the house down. He lead the company in that number and was the Darren we’ve come to know and love from Glee. A sincere bravo! on the dancing.

Singing: Not Good

I know right? Of all things, you’d think the singing would be the area that Darren Criss would be the best at. I mean, I listen to his songs (Glee and otherwise) all the time. I love his voice, he has a good, powerful strong voice. But not in How to Succeed. Not at all actually. I don’t know if it’s in the wrong key or it’s written in a way that makes projection difficult (though did Matthew Broderick have an issue with that? Honestly, did Dan Radcliffe?) or if maybe his excellent dancing takes away from the air he needs to sing these songs. I don’t know what it is but his voice was not strong, he kept shifting from chest to head voice, his power notes weren’t quite there and it sounded like he struggled through many of the numbers. Broadway schedules are killer on the voice but we’re only 5 shows into his run, what is he going to sound like in two weeks? I refuse to believe that Glee fixes his voice that much on those tracks, I’ve watched videos of Darren’s live performances and he sounds great. And maybe it was an off night (though based on some other reviews, I’m thinking maybe not). I do have a rule in musical theater – no matter what, you have to be able to sing the part. I’m sorry Darren but I just don’t think you can sing this part. I won’t go so far as to say he doesn’t have a Broadway voice but I won’t dismiss that idea either.

Acting: BAD

Oh my God, it was bad. At first, his eye-rolling and cute little smirk were endearing but by the end of the show, I kind of wanted to smack him. His Pierpont Finch had no character so it was very hard to root for him to succeed in anything. He wasn’t mischevious, conniving, sweet, a guy who gets lucky breaks or anything else. His Finch just went through the story.  I’m not saying he was a dead log on stage, he wasn’t. But he wasn’t a character, he was a cut-out. Ouch, that was harsh. I don’t think Darren is a bad actor. I think he either wasn’t given the chance to make his own Finch or wasn’t told how to play him. There were moments that were great. Darren has very good comedic timing and good facial expressions. But it felt like he was trying to hard without knowing what he wanted to accomplish.
Also, he was mouthing the words of the other actors, one of those things that doesn’t bug you until you notice it and then you can’t NOT notice it. Seriously dude, I love you but stop doing that.

Ok, this is all getting very harsh and I’m starting to feel bad about it. I’m not going to take back what I said above but I will say that we have to keep something in mind. Darren started full rehearsal for this show two weeks before his opening night. Dan Radcliffe rehearsed for a year. Darren is only getting three weeks to do this show, Dan Radcliffe got a year to develop his character. Darren unfortunately does not have the luxury to grow into this part. J. Pierpont Finch is one of the most demanding male lead roles in musical theater because it calls for a triple threat. You have to sing, you have to dance, you have to charm the socks off the entire place and you have to make an audience care about a character that gets many good fortunes from doing very, very little. Finch is a jackass. The actor playing him needs to make us love him. That takes time to develop and Darren wasn’t afforded that.

Now let’s call a spade a spade. Why do you think there is a 40ft billboard of Darren Criss in Times Square right now? Why did they change the marquee and put his name in lights above the theater? He’s only in this show for 3 weeks! It was done because Darren is being taken for a test drive. Can he fill seats? Can he create buzz? Can he moderately lead a company of actors? Can he play nice with the Broadway brass? If these questions result in yes answers, Criss is going to be back on Broadway in his own show – as soon as Glee is over.

And that’s where, if you take a step back, this whole thing actually sucks for us. We’re being sold an expensive bottle of water that was actually taken from the sink in the kitchen to see if there’s a demand for gourmet water. If there is a demand, maybe down the road a year or two we get a really nice drink. If there isn’t, well at least we got to see that cute smile and that gelled hair in person instead of through our television screen.

So maybe I am being too harsh. Maybe it doesn’t matter that he can’t really sing the role or he hasn’t taken ownership of J Pierpont Finch.  It might be good enough that he was extremely enjoyable to watch – as Darren – and that I smiled throughout the entire 3 hour show. That his eyes sparkled in the lights or that I got to see how insanely big his hands are (like my God he has big hands!). We got to see him sweat up a storm, dance in tight pants, dance like a dream, smile so much we melted in our seats and walked away with a pretty damn good Playbill.

But I wasn’t blown away. And when you expect to be blown away and told you will be blown away, you’re left a little more dejected when that doesn’t happen.

Aw look how cute he is. Ok, never mind everything I just said.

ETA: I also want to say that I’m incredibly envious of and proud for Darren Criss. To star in a Broadway show, with your name literally in lights, is a thrill I would give pretty much anything for and he got to do it. Good for him.

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~ by LMB on 01/07/2012.

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