BWW Review: New Line Theatre's Smashing SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
There are so many things to love about New Line Theatre's latest production, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, that this review is certain to be filled with superlatives. I've watched the 1957 film a number of times, and I like the way John Guare's book for the show uses the first act as a backstory before it touches on the events that actually take place in the movie during the second act. By attacking the story this way Guare adds depth and establishes the characters in ways that the film doesn't. The score is a cool and jazz-tinged effort by the late Marvin Hamlisch, with lyrics, by Craig Camelia, which give the numbers added bite. It's clear to me that the show requires the intimacy this production provides to fully succeed, and also explains its short run on Broadway. That's just one of the things that New Line does so consistently well. The movie is a dark, film noir masterpiece, and in adapting it as a musical for a large stage that claustrophobic atmosphere that is so necessary to the genre is lost. Here, the viewer becomes a fly on the wall, observing the machinations of the plot unfolding in the same way that the film utilizes closeups and shadows to pull us into its cynical world. Superior performances, a great band, and sharp direction make this show a must-see.
Sydney Falco envies the power that gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker wields. Despite the fact that he cannot manage to get an item in Hunsecker's column, he somehow manages to ingratiate himself, and Hunsecker takes him under his wing, schooling him on the nefarious intricacies of the business. The obvious parallel to Hunsecker in the real world would be the late Walter Winchell, whose influence was simply enormous during his heyday. But Hunsecker has an Achilles heel; his sister. When Susan Hunsecker falls for a pianist/composer named Dallas, Hunsecker is enraged. He has what can only be described as a rather unnatural and uncomfortable relationship with her, and he will stop at nothing to break the pair up. That's where Sydney comes in, recruited by Hunsecker to put an end to their romance at all costs. It's a Faustian bargain, whereby Sydney will receive an opportunity to write the column while Hunsecker and his sister embark on an ocean voyage together.
Zachary Allen Farmer is a perfect fit as J.J. Hunsecker, imbuing the role with just the right amount of arrogance and deviant behavior. When he sings "For Susan," his feelings toward his sibling become crystal clear, and also cringe worthy. Matt Pentecost is over eager and naive as Sidney, making a pact with the devil while trying to play both ends against the middle. Pentecost is excellent in the part, and while we abhor his actions, we know he's being manipulated by Hunsecker, as well as he own desire to get ahead. Ann Hier does marvelous work as Susan, her facial expressions and mannerisms conveying the contempt she feels towards her overbearing brother, in direct contrast to the love she feels for Dallas. Sean Michael shines as Dallas Cochran, splendidly portraying his love for Susan in the duet "Don't Know Where You Leave Off." You want this couple to succeed, but you also realize the price that will be paid in order for that to happen. Sarah Porter makes a vivid impression as Sydney's girlfriend with a past, Rita. Kimi Short brings a blunt edge to Hunsecker's secretary Madge, and Kent Coffel supplies menace in his part as Lt. Kello. Jason Blackburn is sleazy and effete as rival columnist Otis Elwell.
The ensemble excels, and includes: Coffel, Blackburn, Mara Bollini, Alison Helmer, William Pendergast, Michelle Sauer, Christopher Strawhun, and Sara Rae Womack. Acting as residents of the city that never sleeps they deliver excellent vocals as a kind of Greek Chorus.
Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor direct, and they've crafted a memorable and intelligently staged production that never fails to engage. Jeffrey Richard Carter's musical direction really brings the score to life in dynamic and expressive fashion, aided by a crack band that includes: Carter (piano), Kaela Barnett (trumpet), Sue Goldford (keyboard), Steven Johnson (reeds), Clancy Newell (percussion), and Jake Stergos (bass). Taylor Pietz's choreography is a mix of familiar styles that work wonderfully to bring movement to this piece. Rob Lippert's clever scenic design makes the most of the limited space, conjuring up locales with exquisite simplicity. Sarah Porter's costume designs capture the period with a unique palette that mixes black and blue shades to superb effect.
New Line Theatre's production of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is a joy to behold. It's smartly conceived and executed, and completely engrossing. What's more, it's totally relevant to events we see transpire in the world of journalism today. This terrific show continues through June 24, 2017 at the Marcelle Theatre in Grand Center.
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg