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A CurtainUp London London Review
Sweet Smell of Success

by Sebastian King

She's learning the hard way that girls get minks the same way minks get minks.— JJ Hunsecker
Sweet Smell of Success
Cast in Sweet Smell of Success (Photo: Simon Annand)
Ten years ago, at the Martin Beck Theatre on Broadway, Nicholas Hytner — who had recently been announced as the new Artistic Director of the National Theatre — directed the world-premiere of a brand new musical by Marvin Hamlisch and John Guare, based on the classic film noir Sweet Smell of Success. Despite the sum of its parts, the show failed to live up to expectations and closed after just three months. For Elyse Sommer’s review of the 2002 production and the full song listing go here. In the wake of Hamlisch’s death earlier this year, and in advance of the Broadway production of A Chorus Line early next year, the Arcola stages the British premiere of this ill-fated musical, hoping for a little more success this time round.

It’s 1952, and the movers and shakers of New York City live in fear and awe of gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker (David Bamber) – none more so than his own sister Susan (Caroline Keiff). Afraid to tell her brother that she’s in love with unsuccessful jazz musician Dallas (Stuart Matthew Price), and in need of an alibi, Susan accidentally drags aspiring journalist Sidney Falcone (Adrian der Gregorian) into their lives. To his surprise, Sidney finds himself being taken under JJ’s wing, and is introduced to the seedier side of being a reporter – a world of prostitution, drugs and bent cops. Before long, he faces the difficult decision of helping Susan, JJ or himself.

Mehmet Ergen’s sharply directed production sets the action of the play firmly in New York’s seedy underworld. Thanks largely to David Howe’s lighting design which sees Mark Bailey’s jazz club set swathed in atmospheric pools of blue light. Nathan M. Wright’s inventive choreography is an absolute joy to watch, performed with charismatic energy by the confident ensemble of socialites and paparazzi who literally pop up from beneath the floorboards. Perched above the action is a stunning seven-piece jazz band. Under Bob Broad’s tight musical direction, the band zip through Hamlisch’s score with pizzazz, although their positioning does slightly distort the sound balance for audience members situated stage-right in the Arcola’s thrust auditorium.

As JJ (based on the infamous New York Daily Mirror writer Walter Winchell), David Bamber perfectly captures the sinister awkwardness of a man who hides behind his reputation and delivers some brilliantly acidic one-liners with aplomb. Gregorian’s Sidney begins as a loveable rogue, with an endearing smile and cracking voice, which makes it all the more unsettling when his character moves over to the dark side and pimps out his girlfriend Rita (an underused Celia Graham) in the hope of securing a news story. Caroline Keiff does her best with the somewhat bland role of Susan, singing sweetly and looking great. But the star of the show for me is undoubtedly Stuart Matthew Price, whose two numbers, the ballad ‘I Cannot Hear The City’ and the more upbeat ‘One Track Mind,’ –are the stand out songs in Hamlisch’s uneven score.

Given the high standard of the cast and creative team, it is a shame then that the one weakness of this show is the show itself, which doesn’t really deserve the top-notch production it gets here. The story is simply not interesting enough, and between the creepy JJ, amoral Sidney, spoilt Susan and ungrateful Dallas, it is difficult to invest emotionally in any of the principle characters. It’s sadly easy to see why success eluded the show on Broadway; one can only hope for the sake of the hardworking team behind this latest incarnation that the title is a little more apt this time.

Sweet Smell of Success
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Craig Carnelia
Book by John Guare
Directed by Mehmet Ergen

Starring: David Bamber, Adrian der Gregorian, Stuart Matthew Price, Caroline Keiff, Celia Graham, Rebecca Louis, Michael Chadwick, Aaron Shirley
With: Tosh Wanogho-Maud, Morgan Deare, Russell Morton, Brenan Davies, Zoe Doano, Claire Doyle, Claudia Kariuki, Nikola Trifunovic
Designed by Mark Bailey
Lighting: David Howe
Musical Direction: Bob Broad
Choreography: Nathan M. Wright
Sound Design: Ed Borgnis
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval
Box Office:020 7503 1646
Booking to 22nd December 2012
Reviewed by Sebastian King based on 14th Novemberperformance at Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 3DL(Tube: Dalston Junction/Dalston Kingsland)

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