How To Succeed In Show Business . . . -- Since His `Karate Kid' Days, Ralph Macchio Has Matured - In Age And Talent

----------------------------------------------------------------- Theater preview

"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" opens Tuesday and runs through Oct. 27, Paramount Theatre; $23-$45, 292-ARTS. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Just about every celebrity actor you can name, even the unlikeliest candidate, has hoofed and crooned his or her way through at least one musical comedy.

Often it happened way back when, in a high school or college show. And after breaking into films or television in a big way, the performer hung up those tap shoes for good.

But today the orbits of Broadway musical theater and Hollywood sound stage are drawing closer. A parade of screen notables have surprised their fans, buffed up their reputations, and enriched stage producers by putting their best feet forward in glitzy musical revivals.

Jerry Lewis headlines a long-running tour of "Damn Yankees." Lou Diamond Philips plays the stern monarch in a hit Broadway retread of "The King and I." Rosie O'Donnell, Brooke Shields and Joely Fisher, among other celebs, cycled through the '50s pop-nostalgia tuner, "Grease."

Matthew Broderick won over critics and audiences, and picked up a Tony Award, in a sparkling 1995 remount of the satirical 1961 musical, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."

And now Ralph Macchio is heading up the national tour of "How to Succeed," which rolls into Seattle's Paramount Theatre next week.

Ralph Macchio? The baby-faced, high-kicking martial arts acolyte in a trio of "Karate Kid" movies?

One and the same. Only now, he is a genial grown-up actor of 34, and the father of two. And what sounded at first like oddball casting has paid off as a career boost for Macchio, whose last major film jobs were playing Joe Pesci's young relation in "My Cousin Vinny" and Eric Stoltz's gay buddy in "Naked in New York."

Good reviews

Midway through the demanding "How to Succeed" tour, which began in Baltimore in May and ends in Milwaukee next June, Macchio has amassed a sheaf of upbeat reviews for his labors as the show's corporate-climber protagonist, J. Pierpont Finch. Variety praised the actor's "strong voice and winsome charm," while the Chicago Sun-Times critic called him "graceful and likeable" and the Los Angeles Times judged him "right for the part."

The positive reception is sweet for Macchio, who was eager to star in a musical he first performed at his Long Island high school. "I was a quiet little executive tap dancing in the background back then," reported the still boyish-looking actor in a recent phone interview. "And I've always loved the show.

"I think it's one of the funniest, smartest American musicals ever written. So when I found out Matthew was doing it on Broadway, I had my agents contact the producers and I really went after the part."

The revival's charm arises not only from the frisky book by Abe Burrows and others, and Frank Loesser's breezy score, but from the terific ensemble dances by Wayne Cilento - who also choreographed "The Who's Tommy" for "How to Succeed" director Des MacAnuff.

Macchio swiftly convinced MacAnuff, Cilento and the show's producers that he could deliver all the right dance moves in the touring edition, with the same limber panache that convinced movie-goers he was a martial arts whiz.

"I was really only good enough at karate to make it look good," Macchio admits. "But I grew up doing dance recitals and musicals, and Gene Kelly was who I wanted to be my whole childhood. The dancing, no problem. The singing was the big question. I knew I could carry a tune, but I didn't know how well."

Like Broderick, Macchio sought vocal coaching to sing "I Believe in You" and other Loesser tunes with authority. But he made sure his "Ponty," who rises from the mail room to the executive suite in record time, was distinct from Broderick's.

"There's certainly more movement and dance in my performance," Macchio emphasizes. "Matthew does dry comedy so well, and he chose to do a Jerry Lewis meets Pee-wee Herman kind of thing with this part. I take a more straightforward approach, a little less cartoony. I think it serves me better, and our company too."

Macchio's Ponty "is pretty ambitious and eager, but always surprising himself with his success. That makes him more charming and likeable, I think. But don't worry - he's still pretty crafty and devious."

Rigors of touring

Macchio co-starred earlier on Broadway in "Cuba and His Teddy Bear" with Robert Duvall, but the rigors of all-out touring are new to him. Having his wife Phyllis, 4-year old daughter Julia and toddler son Daniel along eases the stress.

So does the nightly experience of regaling a live audience - a high no hit film can ever provide, he swears: "On a long tour like this, there are nights you wish you could just stay home and watch `Seinfeld.' But then I hear the overture strike up, and I start bopping."

Like other actors who scored first in juvenile film roles (including Broderick), Macchio has had difficulty establishing himself in more mature parts. He was actually 22 when he starred in the first "Karate Kid" opposite Noriyuki (Pat) Morita, but was entirely believable as an adolescent.

"I still look young, which is a double-edged sword," he muses. "I think it will serve me well later. But sometimes I want roles closer to my real age and that's hard to do right now, because Karate Kid is still my middle name. Without it, though, I wouldn't have had all these opportunities, so I guess it all evens out."

Macchio hopes to emerge from the "How to Succeed" tour "with as many choices as possible in as many possible mediums - film, TV, stage. That's what it's all about for an actor, choices. And maybe a little vacation now and then too."