There’s nothing at all sweet about the sleazy, smarmy, downright despicable protagonist of Sweet Smell Of Success, the Broadway musical adaptation of the 1957 Burt Lancaster/Tony Curtis pic, which may well be the main reason the 2002 John Lithgow-starrer flopped, the last of its mere 109 performances (plus 18 previews) less than two weeks after Lithgow won a Best Actor Tony.
With no chance of a National Tour, and not much more likelihood of a regional theater revival, a musical like Sweet Smell Of Success is precisely the reason SoCal Broadway lovers found reason to rejoice at Musical Theatre Guild’s one-night-only concert staged reading on Sunday, if only to savor Marvin Hamlisch’s jazzy, seductive melodies, Craig Carnelia’s snappy lyrics, and book writer John Guare’s twisted tale of the creepiest gossip monger ever.
JJ Hunsecker is said gossip monger’s name, and if the double initials recall a certain WW (that’s Walter Winchell for those not alive in the first half of the 20th Century), the alliteration is hardly coincidental.
Like the real-life Winchell, whose daily newspaper column and Sunday-night radio broadcast reached audiences in the tens of millions, WW’s fictional counterpart makes it his business to report on dirt of both political and show biz bent, his snarkily-worded blind (and not-so-blind) items celebrated by Sweet Smell Of Success’s Greek-chorus ensemble in the show-opening “The Column.”
(Here’s one of JJ’s tangy tidbits: “Advice to a certain polo-playing playboy after a brawl at P.J. Clark’s last night: Learn the difference between men and pigs. Pigs don’t turn into men when they drink.”)
Since not all of JJ’s “news” morcels are of a negative slant, there’s nothing any aspiring press agent worth his client’s 10% wants more than to get in “The Column,” and our hero Sidney Falcone is no exception … if only he could figure out a way to get through to New York’s most powerful of power brokers.
That chance arrives one night when who should storm into Club Voodoo, the crummy jazz joint Sidney represents, than JJ in search of bar regular Susan, a girl-next-door type with an eye for sexy saloon pianist Dallas.
Furious that Susan has walked out on their dinner at Manhattan’s swanky Stork Club, JJ demands to know what she’s up to in a dive bar like the Voodoo, only to have Sydney come to Susan’s rescue by inventing a story that the twosome are acting class partners out for an innocent afterschool drink.
It turns out that, appearances to the contrary, JJ is not the less-than-half-his-age Susan’s sugar daddy but her half-brother, though as we’ll soon discover, his chops-licking fascination with the curvaceous beauty is the farthest thing from fraternal.
Before long, JJ has given Sydney a new last name (Falco, because all the greats have names that end in “o”), taken on Sydney as his right-hand-man, and informed him that chief among his duties will be to follow Susan and report back on her every doing … because that’s what happens when you make a deal with the devil.
Will Sydney achieve the fame and fortune he so dreams of? Will Susan find a way to break free from JJ’s grasp and make a new life for herself with Dallas? Will JJ take his relationship with his ripe young half-sibling to the level he desires, judgmental prudes be damned?
If this all sounds more than a bit icky, well it is, particularly since Broadway added a good ten years to movie JJ’s age, substituting Third Rock’s Lithgow for the more Rock Hudson-like Lancaster (albeit without Rock’s pesky homosexuality) and upped the incest factor in a way that 1950s Hollywood could only hint at.
That, and Sweet Smell Of Success’s overall air of cynicism, must have proved a turn-off to Broadway audiences more likely to opt for tickets to the year’s Best Musical winner Thoroughly Modern Millie, the recently opened Mamma Mia, or the still-running The Producers.
Fortunately for Broadway buffs, it’s precisely for shows like Sweet Smell Of Success that Musical Theatre Guild came into existence umpteen years back, their latest concert staged reading featuring some of Calvin Remsberg’s most inspired direction to date.
In fact, with so much polish and pizzazz onstage at Santa Monica’s Moss Theatre, it seems an understatement to call Sunday’s production “just” a concert staged reading, so sensational were the results of the cast’s mere twenty-five hours of rehearsal.
It helps that Hamlisch’s score is as exciting as it get, jazzy and seductive and quite unlike anything I’ve heard of his, songs that offered Remsberg, choreographer extraordinaire John Todd, and their cast to shine from sizzling start to seductive finish.
John Sloman commanded the stage as JJ, never shying from the character’s slimier moments, and singing those Hamlisch melodies to resonant perfection, and the same can be said for Sidney, Zachary Ford’s weaselly take on the role as far from his recent Scenie-winning turn as Bye Bye Birdie’s Albert Peterson as murkiest night is to brightest day.
Scenie-winning Musical Theater Star Of The Year Ashley Fox Linton once again demonstrated charm, pluck, and her gorgeous soprano pipes as Susan, and is there a more charismatic, talented, and vocally gifted leading man than Will Collyer as Dallas? (The question is rhetorical.)
Melissa Fahn gave us yet another of her subtly shaded and deliciously dim bimbos, bringing down the house with Rita O’Rourke’s eleventh-hour “Rita’s Tune.” (Here’s hoping Rita knows how to swim!)
Sweet Smell’s ever present (Greek) chorus could not have been more spectacularly up to the multiple roles and tasks assigned them, from Chuck Bergman (Kello, Emcee, Bobo) to Chris Daniel (Congressman, Billy Van Cleve, Senator) to Carol Kline (Madge) to Cassandra Murphy (Woman, Girl) to David Zack (Otis, Press Agent, Tony).
Best of all were the dancetatic quartet of Marisa Field (Ingenue, Dead Blonde), Jeffrey Scott Parsons (Press Agent, Club Zanizabar Singer, Announcer, Floor Manager, Stage Manager), Taylor Simmons (Press Agent, Bartender) and Leslie Stevens (Linda), flawlessly executing more precision choreography than you will probably ever see in a “reading,” with added snaps to Parsons’ resonant pipes in “At The Fountain.”
With Brian P. Kennedy both musical directing and conducting the show’s fabulous onstage orchestra, Hamelish’s melodies could not have been in more accomplished hands.
Costume designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg of AJS Costumes gave Sweet Smell Of Success the Sweet Look Of The Early ‘50s, particularly for the women, with kudos going to Sean McGarry’s pro-quality lighting design as well.
Cast member (and SoCal musical theater treasure) Parsons did double-duty as production coordinator. Art Brickman was production stage manager, assisted by Anne Mureau and Jessica Standifer.
Thanks be to Musical Theatre Guild for rescuing a musical that might otherwise never see the professional light of day from its unfortunate obscurity. (And word to the wise. UC Irvine has a fully-staged production on tap from May 30 to June 6 of next year.)
Next up for MTG on November 16 is 1997’s Triumph Of Love, which ran even fewer performances on Broadway than Sweet Smell Of Success, once again prompting the question:
What could be sweeter than bringing back forgotten Broadway gems (and even those occasional chestnuts) as triumphantly as Musical Theatre Guild seems to do it time after time after time?
The Ann and Jerry Moss Theater, 3131 Olympic Blvd. Santa Monica.
September 14, 2014
Photos: Alan Weston