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A CurtainUp Review
Sweet Smell of Success
I'd hate to take a bite out of you; you're a cookie full of arsenic.
--- J.J. This typically acerbic line is one of numerous hunseckerisms retained by John Guare in his adaptation of the 1957 Ernest Lehman/Clifford Odets cult film.
Think of Sweet Smell of Success which, after considerable tweaking on the road, recently had its official Broadway opening, as a filmnoirsical. The show has all the ingredients to make it live up to its title. The crackerjack creative team is headed by the acclaimed British director Nicholas Hytner. To help the 1957 cult film transition smoothly from screen to stage there's the noted playwright John Guare. To make Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odet's words sing and dance and translate the feel of the film's black and white cityscapes, we have composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Craig Carnelia, New York City Ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, and set and costume designer Bob Crowley. Most importantly, the show has two expert leads, John Lithgow and Brian D'Arcy James, to make you love to hate their nasty characters.

While most of the above named have done their part, the ingredients add up to a flawed and not consistently flavorful whole, with a palette that feels more graynoir than all noir. To get to the tastiest ingredients first:

  • Brian D'Arcy James is ideally cast as Sidney Falco, the wannabe Walter Winchell-a.k.a. J.J. Hunsecker -- a human poison pill. or, as J.J., illustrating the adage about the pot calling the kettle black, puts it "a cookie laced with arsenic." Unlike Lithgow who is more actor than singer, James has a powerful musical theater voice.

    Lithgow's Hunsecker, is deliciously malevolent, self-important and more than a little weird (though not quite so much as Burt Lancaster, the movie J.J.). James actually looks more like Winchell (crossed with Richard Nixon -- a comparison that comes to mind since the curtain is silkscreened with stories from the Daily Globe, a thinly disguised Daily Mirror, and includes a piece on the Eisenhower-Nixon campaign).

  • John Guare has bravely gone beyond slavish adaptation while retaining many of the Hunseckerisms that fans of the film love to quote. (Besides the famous "cookie" line you'll hear "You're dead, go and get yourself buried!" and "I love this dirty town." Instead of beginning with Sidney trying to get back into the good graces of his role model for success, Guare has written a first act that fills us in on how Sidney and J.J. become idol and acolyte. This also builds up the romantic subplot involving J.J.'s unwholesomely adored much younger sister (now his half-sister) Susan (Kelli O'Hara, who sings well and looks good but is, alas, rather bland) and her musician boyfriend Dallas (Jack Noseworthy, who like O'Hara, lacks wattage). This makes for some emotionally strong scenes depicting J.J. as helplessly smitten and telling Susan "Everybody wants me except you. ". While this also tends to make Hunsecker less darkly mysterious, for the most part Guare as often gets his libretto right than wrong. The first act plot buildup also makes for a very effective opening in which J.J. dictates his inches of venomous copy to his always ready to chuckle secretary (the excellent Joanna Glushak).

    Those familiar with Guare's work, will recognize his hand in the show's wittiest scene. It's set in St. Patrick's Cathedral, with J.J. at his most sinister. Sidney, forced to shed any last vestige of his altar boy training, crosses himself but agrees, Faust-like, to betray Susan. With our current headlines full of scandals about the sexual abuse of altar boys, one can't help seeing young Sidney as the kind of altar boy more likely to abuse his religious higher ups rather than the other way around.

  • Also strongly smelling of success is Bob Crowley's clever set design -- from the eye- popping curtain, with its Daily Globe pages receding into fascinating spacial infinity, to the encircling wall of dark skyscapers and the occasionally raised and lowered smaller street scenes (all stunningly lit by Natasha Katz). Various locations in and around Manhattan are wheeled on and off stage but, as Lithgow and James dominate the perfomances, so that basic skyscraper backdrop most clearly defines the musical's mood.

  • Nicholas Hytner's overall staging reflects his savvy with the genre. His use of the ensemble to underscore the action with songs challenging Sidney with "What you gonna do, Sidney?" and " Do it, Sidney!" is very effective. When this Greek chorus leans towards the main players, it's as if those skyscrapers too are pressing in. Having J.J. host a television fund raiser and being persuaded to do one of his old vaudeville routines to raise the final ten thousand dollars is an inspired touch. Surprisingly, Lithgow's vaudevillian turn is not his finest moment, but inter-cutting to the police brutality J.J. inveigles Sidney to instigate makes for a theatrical high point
But this being a musical, what about the music and the choreography? Ah, and there's the rub. The ensemble numbers have a nice dark pulse, and William David Brohn's orchestrations throughout are extremely well done. Overall though, Marvin Hamlish's music and Craig Carnelia's lyrics are pleasantly melodic but only intermittently exhilarating. While any musical score needs more than one hearing to be fairly judged, the tunes that embed themselves in your memory tend to stand out instantly. The only one in this category is the Act 2 "Dirt" in which the chorus sings "Dirt/It's the reason I read/Dirt/It's an animal need. . . " and J.J. counters Sidney's "All the little people are frightened" with "Be one of the little people." There are a few nice ballads but there's little to distinguish them from familiar easy listening melodies. I suspect "Rita's Song", was written to give the talented Stacey Logan a solo but unfortunately her song seems totally superfluous.

As for the choreography, Christopher Wheeldon supplies plenty of energetic dance routines which, with the women dressed by Crowley in '50s nipped waist, swirl skirted dresses, look good. Like the music, the overall impression is somewhat underwhelming.

I suppose you might say that this Sweet Smell of Success has a happy ending in that Susan and Rita get the best of the two men our president might call "evil doers." But this is a dark and cynical expose of those who worship on the altar of power and money and somehow this softening around the edges of plot and character makes for a filmnoirsical without quite the bite and sizzle of the film noir that inspired it.

Whether you love the show or agree with my quibbles, you may want to take another look at the cult film that started it, available in VHS and DVD

You may also want to read the novelette -- a cross between a very long short story and a very short novel, once popular magazine fiction fare-- recently reissued in paperback in anticipation of the musical: Sweet Smell of Success: The Short Fiction of Ernest Lehman (If you follow the link, you can sample eight pages from this novelette which started with Sidney talking to his mother in Forest Hills.

Sweet Smell of Success
Book (from the 1957 film) by John Guare
Music: Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics: Craig Carnelia
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Cast: John Lithgow/ J.J. Hunsecker, Brian d'Arcy James,/ Sidney, Stacey Logan /Rita , Jack Noseworthy/Dallas, Kelli O'Hara/Susan, David Brummel/Kello, Jamie Chandler-Torns/Pregnant Woman, Kate Coffman-Lloyd/Cathedral Soloist, Bernard Dotson/ Club Zanzibar Singer, Allen Fitzpatrick/Senator, Jennie Ford/ J.J.'s Vaudeville Partner , Lisa Gadja/Swing, Eric Michael Gillett/Otis Elwell, Laura Griffith/Swing, Joanna Glushak/Madge, Michelle Kittrell/Charlotte Von Habsburg, Jill Nicklaus/ Senator's Girlfriend, Steven Ochoa/Lester, Michael Paternostro/Billy Van Cleve, Eric Sciotto/Pepper White's Escort, Elena L. Shaddow/Abigail Barclay, Drew Taylor/Swing, Frank VlastnikTony
Sets and Costumes: Bob Crowley
Lighting Design: Natasha Katz
Sound Design: Tony Meola
Choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon
Orchestrations: William David Brohn
Music Coordinator: Michael Keller
Musicians: Conductor: Jeffrey Huard; Piano/Associate Conductor: Ron Melrose; Keyboard 2/Assistant Conductor: Joel Fram; Drums: Steve Bartosik; Reeds: Ted Nash, Dennis Anderson, Charles Pillow, Ken Dybisz, Ron Janelli; Trumpets: Bob Millikan, Larry Lunetta; Trombones: Michael Davis, Randy Andos; Bass Trombone: Douglas Purviance; French Horn: Roger Wendt; Cello: Clay Ruede; Bass: John Beal; Percussion: Bill Hayes
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours including intermission
Martin Beck, 302 W. 45th St., (8/9th Aves) 239-6200
From 2/23/02; opening 3/14/02.
Mon-Sat 8pm, Wed, Sat 2pm $25-$95

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 19th performance.

Order Tickets
Musical Numbers
Act One

  • The Column/ J.J., Sidney & Ensemble
  • I Could Get You in J.J/Sidney
  • I Cannot Hear the City/Dallas
  • Welcome to the Night/J.J., Sidney & Ensemble
  • Laughin' AIl the Way to the Bank/Club Zanzibar Singer
  • At the Fountain/Sidney
  • Psalm 151/J.J. & Sidney
  • Don't Know Where You Leave Off/Dallas & Susan
  • What If/Susan & Ensemble
  • For Susan/J.J.
  • One Track Mind/Dallas
  • I Cannot Hear the City (Reprise)/Dallas
  • End of Act I/Ensemble
Act Two

  • Break It Up/ J.J., Sidney & Ensemble
  • Rita' s Tune/Rita
  • Dirt/Ensemble
  • I Could Get You in J.J (Reprise)/ Sidney
  • I Cannot Hear the City (Reprise) /Sidney
  • Don't Look Now/J.J. & Ensemble
  • At the Fountain (Reprise)/Sidney & Ensemble
  • End of Act II/J.J., Susan, Sidney & Ensemble
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