Sweet Smell of Success

Martin Beck, NY – May 2002
Review by John Kenrick

It's hard to make cynicism sing, and even harder to keep it singing for two and a half hours. However much of a monster Walter Winchell was (and history tells us he was as vile as they come), he deserved a better send-up than this poor excuse for a musical.

Do you remember Winchell? Unless you are over 60 or an entertainment history buff (like yours truly), odds are you don't know his name. One of the most ruthless gossip columnists of the 1940's and 50's, a mention in Winchell's nationally syndicated column and radio show was the hallmark of fame. He and the glamorous Broadway nightlife of smoky bars and flashy clubs he thrived on faded away half a century ago, but not before the 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success took a thinly veiled look at Winchell's smarmy way of doing business.

Now that Winchell and his world are practically forgotten, there seems little point in turning that old film into a ten million dollar musical. Recognizing this, the Playbill provides a two page reminiscence of that "long ago, far away" era, but that hardly makes this material compelling for contemporary audiences. The plot, another reworking of the "success can cost you your soul" theme that has been bouncing around since time immemorial, doesn't help us much either.

The premise – sleazy press agent Sidney Falcone manages to capture the attention and patronage of powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker. With twenty million gossip-hungry readers, Hunsecker holds the power of life and death for celebrities and the businesses that cater to them. Overnight, Sidney becomes one of the hottest agents in New York. But catering to this man's egotistical whims proves treacherous. When Sidney fails to keep Hunsecker's sister Susan from running off with a jazz musician, Sidney learns that success can cost more than he was ever willing to pay.

Even the darkest musical has to offer audiences someone to sympathize with. In adapting Ernest Lehman's original screenplay, playwright John Guare makes few major changes – which is no surprise, since Lehman is listed as one of this musical's producers. As it stands, each of the leading characters is so relentlessly hateful that we have nothing to latch on to. Lehman's most memorable lines only wind up helping this show to drown in its own clich's.

A good score might have helped. The usually talented lyricist Craig Carnelia seems lost here, with almost none of his usual blend of heart and wit. One had also hoped for more from Broadway's only living Pulitzer-winning composer, Marvin Hamlisch. As it is, his attempts to capture the sound of 1950's club music wind up sounding disconcertingly alike. The tired convention of using the ensemble to comment on the action and pose key musical questions gets no help from director Nicholas Hytner and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon who give this show one of the flattest, most unimaginative stagings I've ever seen on Broadway.

While Bob Crowley's sets and costumes teeter between gray banality and sheer ugliness, the inventive Natasha Katz's lighting effects offer an occasional glimmer of life. It is unclear who designed the nifty neon signs that add desperately needed wit to the otherwise dreary nightclub scenes.

My heart goes out to the handsome, talented performers caught in this mess. What a shame John Lithgow made his long awaited return to Broadway in this disaster. As Hunsecker, he manages to show an occasional flash of fire, but the script never gives him any sustained chance to work his art. He also has to endure "Don't Look Now," one of the worst 10 O'Clock numbers in years.

The handsome Brian D'Arcy James is no better off as the reptilian Sidney. He sings up a storm during "At the Fountain," but the role otherwise wastes his many charms. Kelli O'Hara is personality zero as Hunsecker's suffering sister, and the luscious Jack Noseworthy nothing to work with as her one-dimensional musician boyfriend. Eric Michael Gillett scores in his brief scenes as a competing columnist, and as Sidney's girlfriend Stacey Logan suddenly set things cooking with her Act Two solo – but the song was so unrelated to the rest of the show that it seemed laughably out of place.

Its ironic that people like James, Gillette and Logan, who would easily have been major Broadway stars in the 1950's, now have to struggle against the material playing supporting roles in this second rate imitation of that era.

Final verdict – thumbs down on Sweet Smell of Success. Thwarted hopes, wasted talents and crushed dreams – the fate, as well as the theme of this clunker. No wonder Broadway wags have dubbed this one The Bitter Stench of Disaster.

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