Musicals don’t get any more dark and twisted (or come with scores any more gorgeous) than the rarely staged Sweet Smell Of Success, just two of the many reasons to catch UC Irvine’s sensational all-student production, one that rivals the best our professional companies have to offer, albeit with a far more youthful cast.
Success may indeed smell sweet, but the opposite proves true of the sleazy, smarmy, downright despicable protagonist of the 2002 Broadway musical adaptation of the 1957 Burt Lancaster/Tony Curtis pic. No wonder, then, that theatergoers still reeling from 9/11 ended up far too few for the John Lithgow-starrer to last longer than 127 performances plus previews.
What audiences missed out on then, and have continued to miss out on in the ensuing thirteen years, are 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 (Andrew Mondello) is said gossip monger’s (household) 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 both political and show biz, 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 press agent worth his 10% wants more than to get in “The Column,” and aspiring agent Sidney Falcone (Giovanni Munguia) 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 (Abigail Schwartz), a girl-next-door type with an eye for sexy saloon pianist Steve Dallas (Tariq Malik).
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 lying that the twosome are acting class partners out for an innocent after-school drink.
It turns out that, appearances to the contrary, JJ is not Susan’s twice-her-age sugar daddy but her twice-her-age half-brother, though as we’ll soon discover, his chops-licking fascination with the blonde beauty may not be all that fraternal.
Before long, JJ has given Sydney a new last name (Falco, since 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 seems to desire, 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 John 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, and for SoCal musical theater lovers in general, UC Irvine is not only giving Sweet Smell Of Success what I’m told is only its second college production, it is a pretty darned spectacular one at that.
It helps that Hamlisch’s score is as exciting as it gets, jazzy and seductive and quite unlike anything I’ve heard of his. It helps even more that Myrona DeLaney’s inspired direction more than matches her Scenie-winning work in 2013’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. And UCI’s Sweet Smell Of Success wouldn’t be nearly as sweetly successful without the brilliance of Andrew Palermo’s virtually nonstop choreography, performed by one of the finest dance ensembles I’ve seen in a good long while.
Some of the dirty-old-man ick factor may be lost by having an early-20something play JJ, but Mondello does a terrific job at acting slimy and sings quite splendidly, though a tendency to swallow short syllables can make JJ’s snappy patter a tad hard to understand at times.
The lovely Schwartz and the GQ-ready Malik are perfectly cast as ingénue couple Susan and Dallas, and both have glorious vocal chops to match. Jamie Espiritu’s Rita O’Rourke (Sydney’s waitress girlfriend) belts out a show-stopping eleventh-hour “Rita’s Tune” that portends great things ahead for the vivacious comedienne. (Here’s hoping Rita knows how to swim!) Shayanne Ortiz gives JJ’s secretary Madge just the right sassy, brassy edge.
Best of all among leading players is the phenomenal Munguia, a young Norbert Leo Butz who gives us Sydney at his most weaselly and his most human, radiates star quality, and sings Hamlisch’s melodies as gorgeously as any Sweet Smell lover could wish for.
And then there’s the ensemble, a singing-dancing Greek chorus that scarcely ever leave the stage, whether harmonizing to Hamlisch or hoofing to Palermo’s Jerome Robbins-esque choreography, and performing it all with talent and precision and pizzazz that any professional chorus line could emulate.
Joseph Abrego (Congressman, Otis Elwell, Pepper White’s Escort), Māta Barr (Abigail Barclay), Ethan Bell (Club Zanzibar Singer, Tony), Jacob Ben-Schmuel (Club Zanzibar Singer), Heidi Bjorndahl, Travis Brown (Kello), Emma DeLaney, Madisen Johnson, Derek Miller (Press Agent, Senator), Catherine Nickerson (Senator’s Girlfriend), Amy Tilson-Lumetta (Pregnant Woman, Charlotte Von Habsburg), Bryce Vaewsorn (Club Zanzibar Singer, J.J.’s Vaudeville Partner, Lester) are absolutely sensational each and every one, and deserve program credit not just as “Male Ensemble” and “Female Ensemble” but also for the featured and cameo roles they bring to vivid life. (
Abrego’s sleazy JJ rival Ellwell, Brown’s sinister police detective Kello, and Vaewsorn’s adorable ventriloquist’s dummy are particular standouts, as is the full-ensemble production number “Dirt,” which deservedly earns some of the evening’s loudest cheers.
Musical director Daniel Gary Busby not only elicits superb vocal work from his onstage cast, he conducts a Broadway-caliber sixteen-piece orchestra and some terrific pit singers who sweeten the vocal mix throughout.
(Band: Larry Briner, Takako Cardenas, David Catalan, Lonn Hayes, Steve Hernandez, Steve Hughes, Ashley Jarmack, Lex Leigh, Patrick Lenertz, Nancy Newman, Drew Nimmer, Brian Owen, Carlos Rivera, Will Vargas, Jonathan Wang, and Chris Wilson. Pit Singers: Nikko Arce, Elise Borgfelt, Nick Borgault, Elora Casados, Andrew De Los Reyes, Sara Hopp, and Jessica Merghart.)
Any professional production would do well to match scenic designer Vannessa Fusi-Hoblit’s striking set with its multipurpose central tower, staircase, and descending girders standing in for Manhattan and letting our imaginations do the rest. Darrin Wade’s Technicolor film-noir lighting is absolutely spectacular, as are JoJo Siu’s period-perfect 1950s costumes, each and every one a design gem. Matthew Eckstein’s sound design is crystal clear, insuring a just-right blend of instrumentals and voices.
Amber D. Julian is production stage manager and Anne Hitt is associate stage manager.
The eighth UC Irvine musical I’ve reviewed over the past six years, Sweet Smell Of Success is also one of the very best, and there hasn’t been a stinker among them. Succinctly put, productions don’t get much sweeter than UCI’s Sweet Smell Of Success.
UCI Claire Trevor Theatre, UC Irvine Campus, Irvine.
June 3, 2105
Photos: Paul R. Kennedy