In a recent interview, it became clear that the connection between Cyndi Steele-Harrod and her son Dalton Harrod extends well beyond the traditional familial bond. In musical theater terms, their professional relationship could be described as a mutual admiration society.
Evidence of that shared respect emerged throughout a conversation in which they discussed their current project, the Poteet Theatre production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Cyndi is directing, and Dalton heads the cast.
The 17-year-old actor said that while being directed by his mom placed him in a comfortable situation, he’s received no preferential treatment. Cyndi, in turn, was understandably reluctant to cast her son because of possible complaints about nepotism.
But she was duly impressed that he took the initiative to fly from New York to Oklahoma just to audition for the role. Dalton saw this as an opportunity to stretch his theatrical wings.
The former Oklahomans have spent the past decade living in New York City, where Cyndi is a faculty member at Shuffles, a Broadway tap and musical theater school. Dalton just completed his junior year at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.
Frank Loesser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical follows J. Pierrepont Finch’s meteoric rise from window washer to executive at the mythical World Wide Wicket Co. The 1961 musical won seven Tony Awards and has received two notable revivals: a 1995 production starring Matthew Broderick and another in 2011 starring Daniel Radcliffe.
“Finch is a vulnerable character because he thinks he’s not as smart as everyone else,” Dalton said. “He wants to climb the corporate ladder quickly so no one will question his ability or his credentials. He compensates for that because he’s so determined.”
So, too, is the actor playing him. Dalton has used his dance background to flesh out the physicality of his role. His character’s rapid-fire speech comes into play as well, something that allows him to move with greater fluency.
In “How to Succeed,” Finch is rarely absent from the stage. It’s also a dialogue-heavy role that would challenge the most experienced actor’s memorization skills. Surprisingly, Dalton committed his lines to memory in only a week and a half.
“It’s one thing to memorize something, but you then have to make it come to life,” Dalton said. “You also have to be comfortable enough with your acting choices so that people will accept what you said.
“It’s important to get off book, because there are so many choices that have to be made — things like subtext and split-second decisions. It’s hard to make those happen if you’re carrying the book around. It’s also a hard role to sing. Finch never stops talking, and when he’s not talking, he’s singing.”
Every actor must learn how to deal with memory slips, an occupational hazard that can happen when least expected. How a performer handles the situation can mean the difference between success and failure.
“When you go up on a line, you owe it to the audience to try to find your way back,” Dalton said. “It shows that even the most well-trained actor will slip up now and then. You strive for perfection, but it never will be. That’s what’s fun about this challenge.”
Research and readiness
Before directing any new production, Cyndi likes to learn as much as possible about the show. For “How to Succeed,” she researched the role of women in the workplace and explored how the clothing styles of the 1960s influenced the way they moved. It’s a time-consuming process, but one that yields many directorial rewards.
“The men have an agenda, and that’s to move up in the company,” Cyndi said. “With the women, I asked them to create back stories for their characters. The cool thing about this cast is that they want to be here. They want to learn, and I love that they challenge me.”
In preparation to play Finch, Dalton read Shepherd Mead’s book (the inspiration for this musical), one whose comedy he called outrageously funny. Discovering the best way to convey his character’s humor was but one of many challenges he faced.
“As an actor, you want to make a character as layered as possible,” Dalton said. “When we’re learning choreography or blocking, it’s like lightbulbs go off in my head: This would be a cool thing to add here. Because I take a lot of notes, it’s almost like having a tiny diary in your script. With Finch, there’s always something interesting to discover.”
When Cyndi talks about her son’s growth as an actor, she becomes understandingly emotional. She’s watched him tackle such demanding roles as Young Junior in “On Your Toes,” Moritz in “Spring Awakening” and Jack in “Finding Neverland.”
“This is a kid with Broadway credits who has been just as happy playing the fourth tree on the right in a small Oklahoma production,” Cyndi said. “So it’s particularly gratifying to see him tackle an adult role like Finch. He’s the most grateful human being I’ve ever known.”
IF YOU GO
‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’