Success comes easily to Darren Criss. He might need a book to guide him as J. Pierrepont Finch, the lead role in Broadway’s “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,” but watching Criss’s career moves over the past year, it’s clear that he’s got an innate knoweldge of how to make it in his preferred profession, no reading required. His latest stop, Broadway, is no exception.
Tuesday (Jan. 3) marked Criss’ takeover of the role from Daniel Radcliffe, who originated the character for the revival last spring. With two weeks of rehearsal over his holiday break to prepare him, Criss is getting a three-week vacation from his main job, “Glee,” to complete his limited run. The musical chronicles Finch’s calculated and meteoric rise to corproate and romantic success, a retro look at “Mad Men” culture set to song, and a show that’s less about a plot and more a showcase for a dynamic male lead, someone who can sing, dance and charm your pants off — qualities Criss has in spades.
Criss’ shining moment was “I Believe In You,” where Finch sings a pep talk into his washroom mirror as he makes his climb to the top. The staging puts Criss on a platform at the front of the orchestra, close to the audience. Although he’s singing to himself, he manages to connect to the crowd and seems to tell them he believes in them, too.
The other true test of his success in the role was how he’d fair for “Brotherhood of Men,” a number that pulls together all the key aspects of Finch — voice, charms and moves. Unfortunately Criss was vocally quiet throughout the show, either a function of a too-low mic or opening night jitters that prevented him from pushing himself to full volume. On “Glee” and as a solo act, Criss is more pop-rock than Broadway, and this show leaves little room for him to riff and settle into his comfort zone, sometimes leaving him startlingly soft in contrast to the rest of the chorus. Where in “I Believe In You” that quietness worked, in “Brotherhood of Man,” he needed just a bit more. However, he made up for any shortcomings with effortless dancing and striking charisma.
The show then wound to a quick end, and Criss took his first Broadway bow to a standing ovation, mouthing his thanks at the crowd filled with family, friends and fans. Criss emerged to a mob at the stage door, who respectfully quieted down so he could shout his thanks to everyone within earshot before signing autographs.
One question going into opening night was in regards to how Criss’s “Glee” and StarKid fanbase would react to a non-sing-along type setting. His fans have assured his three-week run is near sell-out, and they packed the house for the opening, some camping out overnight to get last-minute tickets. Aside from one well-intentioned (and luckily mostly drowned out by applause) “I love you, Darren,” and some tittering when Criss’s character jumped on furniture (akin to his “Glee” character Blaine last season), the vibe in the Al Hirschfield Theatre Tuesday was one of quiet reverence and palpable emotional investment in Criss, quite frankly, succeeding. On the whole he did — Finch’s character is a smooth fit for Criss, who oozes charm yet gets away without seeming calculated about it. Any bumps should be ironed out as he settles into the role.