HBS Executive Education’s Nathaniel Koven reviews No Clue.
The 46th HBS Show, No Clue: The Case You Can’t Prepare For, was always going to go down in HBS history as the first theatrical production in the recently-completed Klarman Hall, but what a smashing first it was. This production, which ran April 8–10, was an unalloyed success, from the eye-grabbing ensemble grand opening “Here at Harvard Business School” (to the tune of the opening number from Hamilton) to its creative use of Klarman’s technical capabilities and deft handling of difficult topics in “MomBA Tango” (to the tune of “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago), to its excellent and hilarious inside jokes and references, culminating in the plot twist at the end, that—spoiler alert—the Dean kidnapped himself by wandering off to become the new CEO of GE.
Head writer Ann Hewitt (MBA ’19) and the writing team did a fantastic job crafting a hilarious and surprisingly incisive work. This musical was daring in its addressing of difficult topics without being inappropriate or trite, especially in songs such as “MomBA Tango” and the back-to-back pairing of “Where Can I Go?” and “Consulting Days” (to the tunes of “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana and “You’ll Be Back” from Hamilton). The breadth of music used was impressive, from musicals of screen and stage such as Mulan, The Lion King, and The Greatest Showman, to recognizable popular music by Ariana Grande, Queen, Katy Perry, and Adele. The writers always treated the parody deftly; hardly a lyric was not changed, and yet the new lyrics still hewed to and creatively referenced the old in their structure.
The story, which in other circumstances might easily have been a contrivance that served as little more than a vessel for the songs, was not phoned in; it had a real narrative that held together well. Focusing the plot around six “coincidentally color-coded” MBA students who seem at first to be one-dimensional stereotypes yielded surprising character development opportunities, allowing the audience to watch the characters become more fully realized through the creative use of nonlinear storytelling that sketched out complete character arcs, while still allowing the actors to play the stereotypes very effectively for laughs in the first act. And as we should expect from any good HBS Show, the script was riddled with hilarious HBS references to things like the RC singles Slack, the unknown purpose of the Schwartz Pavilion, the TOM course’s Shad Simulation, and FIELD Foundations, among many others.
The actors, under the capable direction of Savannah Greene (MBA ’19) and her colleagues, were excellent. Vaibhav Agarwala (MBA ’20) as Dean Nohria, the Mr. Boddy of this Clue-inspired story, played the only character who is also a real person. It is challenging to play a caricature of the Dean without disrespecting him, but Agarwala threaded that needle subtly and well. The Dean’s ready-made ransom video, for instance, in the style of the real-life Dean’s various prerecorded welcomes and remarks, was hilariously on point. Wadsworth, a FIELD professor and also the Dean’s butler, was ably played by Brandon Levin (MBA ’20). (Why is Professor Wadsworth also the butler? “The things they make you do for tenure these days,” he bemoans.) Levin was more than equal to the sardonic Briticisms with which the writers entrusted him, as well as an impressive singer in songs like “Dinner at Nohria’s” (to the tune of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”).
But it was the six color-coded MBA student characters who really got to shine, as their roles needed both comedic character acting and the dynamic range demanded by leads. Gabriel Ellsworth (MBA ’20) was hilariously and effectively cast as the effusively well-meaning joint MD/MBA student Peter Plum. Camila Diehl (MBA ’19) as the ambitious Section X entrepreneur Scarlet Saint-Germain impressed with how she could bring subtle pathos to a casually disrespectful misanthrope by the end of her arc, and she had a magnificent singing voice. Kyle Emory (MBA ’19) was hilarious and over the top as the “10th generation legacy” finance bro Gary Green, a character who is “less self-aware than a JD/MBA clarifying the legal doctrines in LCA.” Ellen Le (MBA ’19)’s Penny Peacock, an insecure, people-pleasing, mission-driven, dangerously-FOMO-obsessed section president, brought to life a variety of recognizable character flaws familiar to the Harvard community, and Le’s singing voice was notably impressive in songs like “Where Can I Go?” Marine infantry officer Major Mike Mustard, played by Nicholas Fleming (MBA ’20), presented an excellent caricature of self-imposed repression while highlighting values of duty, honor, and integrity. And maybe most impressively, Sarah Peck (MBA ’20) brought tremendous skill to the challenging character of pregnant student Winona White, who grappled with difficult issues—not only the realities of pregnancy but also the pernicious social and societal reactions to it and those reactions’ consequences.
The expansive supporting cast were also quite strong, and many had songs of their own as well; noteworthy among them was Steve Smith (MBA ’19), whose performance as a recruiting partner from the “McBainsey Group” in the song “Consulting Days” was especially hilarious.
Dance Director Sarina Huang (MBA ’19) and her team of choreographers and featured dancers put on a visual feast of movement, including everything from simple but effective and well-rehearsed synchronized movements to some complex and challenging choreography, making songs such as “If Only You’d Gone to Tuck” (based on “IDGAF” by Dua Lipa), “Raise Your Hand” (based on “Raise Your Glass” by P!nk), and “Could’ve Had It All” (based on “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele) all the more effective.
The dancers and choreographers pulled out all the stops in the double-song Act I and II finales: “We Will Find You” and “We Are the Leaders” (based on “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions,” both by Queen) in Act I, and “Where Did Nohria Go?” (based on “The Greatest Show” from The Greatest Showman) and “Business for Life” (based on “Circle of Life” from The Lion King) in Act II.
The orchestra, conducted and directed by John Swisher (MBA ’19), was incredibly capable. Amateur orchestras can be hit-or-miss, but this one was all hit, and they were obviously having fun while still holding to nearly professional quality. The creativity of the orchestration also impressed; Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” doesn’t have brass in the original, but the orchestra’s use of brass in its parody “What’s Our Cycle Time?” was both surprising and very well executed, and the violin solos by Matt Smith and Josephine van Leeuwen (MBA ’19) in multiple songs and scene transitions in the second act were especially impressive, enough to stir the crowd to mid-song applause more than once.
The theater tech, led by technical director D. R. Rockwell (MBA ’19), was the most uniquely impressive part of the show, because it made such effective and creative use of Klarman’s capabilities. The wall-to-wall screen behind the stage was used to create mostly-digital sets through animated backdrops. The creative possibilities of the animated backdrops were really on display in, for instance, the transition between the Newport Ball scenes and “MomBA Tango,” in which the white mullioned windows of a Newport ballroom became dark and backlit in red to invoke Chicago-inspired jail cells. Klarman’s lighting grid is fully tricked out with dozens and dozens of programmable fully-mechanized lights—massively overkill and wasted on even the most multimedia-rich speaking event, and only really put to anything approaching its potential by theatrical productions—and this production showed off what it could do. Although not specifically designed for it, Klarman makes a phenomenal venue for theater on its technical capabilities alone, and hopefully future productions will put it through its paces as well; a Vari-Lite is a terrible thing to waste.
Ultimately, the 2019 HBS Show was a tremendous success, but it’s worth remembering how tightly it is aimed at a passionate niche audience. The multitude of layered inside jokes referencing leaders as architects or beacons, obscure theme parties, the BGIE trilemma, and so on makes it impenetrably hard to parse for outsiders—but that’s also the point. No Clue captured and bound what makes the HBS experience unique and transformational for those who share it, and it brought that audience onto the stage and into the story with a portrayal of that experience that resonates so deeply because it’s shared. When Peacock said to Professor Wadsworth shortly before the finale, “I just wanted people to like me!” and Wadsworth replied, “Penny, you go to Harvard Business School! For the rest of your life, no one will like you,” the Show worked its magic, for the audience laughed uproariously, knowing that they were all part of that “you” together.
For more coverage of No Clue, see “From the Boardroom to the Stage” (April 2019), an interview with Executive Director Savannah Greene.
Nathaniel Koven is a Program Manager in Executive Education at Harvard Business School. When not on the clock, he has been an avid participant in the Harvard and MIT theater scenes for more than 10 years, including as an actor, set designer, stage director, and producer of musical theater productions. A Boston native, he has also occasionally reviewed local musical theater performances for The Boston Musical Intelligencer and The Trumpet Bray, and he currently sits on the board of the Savoyards of Boston, a local musical theater nonprofit.