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Theater Review:

"SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS" at the Shubert Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

In "Sweet Smell of Success" – the heatedly anticipated pre-Broadway musical, about a ruthless and perverse 1950’s celebrity gossip columnist, which opened tonight at the Shubert Theatre – the air is infused with the acrid stench of power mongering. And even brilliant scenic designer Bob Crowley’s smoky Manhattan cityscape appears to be choking the dignity out of the dirt-clammering hordes.

This new musical, based on the 1957 noirish film of the same name starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, is entrenched in ever-relevant themes of corruption, ambition and the brutal crushing of compassion in an effort to satiate the public’s craving for scandal. So "Sweet Smell of Success" – with music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Craig Carnelia and a book by John Guare – cannot be billed as lighthearted fare in the same vein as Mel Brooks’ "The Producers" (which also premiered in Chicago before moving on to Broadway and a truckload of Tonys). Yet a devilishly smug sense of humor courses through the musical’s reptilian veins, making for some jarring juxtapositions.

But, while "Sweet Smell of Success" weaves a dark tale of unspeakable moral deterioration with an ultimately fortifying ending, it oddly has the capacity to leave the audience cold. Perhaps the creative team aimed to merge theme and structure so that its glossy veneer reflects the heartless machinations of main character, J.J. Hunsecker -- the Walter Winchell-esque poison-pen columnist who initiates young press agent Sidney Falco into the conscience-deadening world of gossip.

And the cast – particularly the chorus of whispering rumor mongers – appears to move as one type-set block of newsprint, with the stage ominously shaded in lighting designer Natasha Katz’s smudged black-and-white hues.

However, a musical with such emotionally charged subject matter – despite the frigidity of J.J. Hunsecker’s schemes – needs to engage our souls. As it stands, "Sweet Smell of Success" entertains in a very broad sense; it doesn’t stir the senses. Nicholas Hytner’s staging feels like a tabloid newspaper has been opened and spread across the stage -- and we’re peering inside those scribbles of superficiality. Apart from the idyllic "For Susan" and the menacing "Don’t Look Now," Hamlisch’s score is unvarying and unmemorable. The melodies evaporate even as the superb cast is singing them. Carnelia’s lyrics, on the other hand, are quite chiseled and moving. But Guare’s book needs to replace its shallow caricaturized phrases with more multifaceted dialogue.

The most successful aspects of the show are Crowley’s textured sets, that remarkably recreate a black-and-white film on stage, and his equally luscious Rat Pack-era costumes; and Christopher Wheeldon’s daring, revelatory choreography, which seamlessly advances the story.

John Lithgow’s toweringly complacent and desperate portrayal of J.J. Hunsecker (truly a bloodsucker who goes directly for the juggler, yet struggles with the knowledge of his own insignificance) nearly transcends the musical. Brian d’Arcy James as the equally ambitious Sidney Falco turns in a powerhouse performance that’s at once likable and repulsive.

Kelli O’Hara as J.J.’s over-protected stepsister, Susan, and Jack Noseworthy as her ill-fated songwriter-beau Dallas have not fully plumbed the depths of their characters’ intense attraction. Their portrayals veer toward the wooden. Stacey Logan as Rita, Sidney’s much-abused girlfriend, has the most thankless role in the show. Her character is unforgivably underwritten: the classic cliched sexpot with one clunky sexpot solo. Too bad the writers didn’t make J.J.’s savvy and immovable secretary Madge (played with jaded finesse by Joanna Glushak) into a significant role. She’s one of the more fascinating figures on stage for the few minutes she’s on.

To call "Sweet Smell of Success" dated would be inaccurate and unfair because it does mirror certain values and characteristics of the McCarthy Era in which it is set. But it does have a boiler-plate sensibility to it; a straightforward, totally un-subtle portrait of a society bloated from its ravenous appetite for "National Enquirer"-style defamation.
Alas, it is the 21st century. Sadly, the creative team behind "Sweet Smell of Success" has made no effort to move the musical-theater form forward. So we’re basically left with a musical as fleeting as the gossip swirling around it.•

"Sweet Smell of Success" runs through January 27 at the Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe. Tickets: $37-$77.50. Call 312-902-1400.

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