BWW Reviews: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, Arcola Theatre, November 14 2012
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by Gary Naylor
"It's the feelbad musical of the year!" Not a quote likely to appear on a playbill - but fair enough, because Sweet Smell of Success (at the Arcola Theatre until 22 December) is no Legally Blonde. It is, however, a brilliantly realised condemnation of unregulated power and misplaced ambition, eerily relevant 60 years on from its setting. As newspapers and broadcasters face the impact of Lord Leveson's report on phone-tapping and the fall-out from the Jimmy Savile allegations, media ethics is as hot button a topic as you will find - well, in North London, it is.
JJ Hunsecker (David Bamber) writes (or rather selects from the items provided by an army of PRs and stringers scrambling to get their clients' names in the paper) the marquee gossip column in America's biggest selling daily. Amoral, ruthless and unfailingly populist, he hides behind 60 million devoted fans (where have we heard that before?), making or breaking the wannabees, stars and has-beens vying for a slice of the booming entertainment market of post-war America. Hunsecker knows how to make things happen and knows who he can pay to see that such things happen. Holding court at the most exclusive of New York's glamorous jazz clubs, he is as much a Manhattan Master of the Universe as was Sherman McCoy forty years later. But he has a weakness - kid sister Susan (Caroline Keiff), whom he has worshipped since her childhood and whom he is determined to protect from unsuitable matches. She - naturally - has other ideas.
John Guare's book (based on the cult movie of 1957) examines the relationship between the brother and sister, interpolating the cub reporter Sidney Falcone (Adrian Der Gregorian), whom Hunsecker employs to spy on his sister, and Susan's unfortunate artistic lover, Dallas (Stuart Matthew Price). Each has something the others want, and all four use that power to seek their own ends. All four don't win.
Marvin Hamlisch's music and Craig Carnelia's sophisticated, witty and heartrending lyrics are done full justice by some of the best singing I've heard in theatres all year. It's amplified - always a shade disappointing - but every word matters, as every note is hit. Ms Keiff and Mr Bamber sing well enough, but honours are taken by Mr der Gregorian's lustful dream of fame and fortune, "At the Fountain" and Mr Price's beautiful love song, "I cannot hear The City". There's also a showstopping song and killer punchline from Celia Graham as Rita, Sidney's on-off girlfriend.
It's ridiculous that it has taken ten years for this work to cross the Atlantic - music, lyrics, singing, dancing, costumes and (above all) the Shakespearean sweep of its storyline make for a tremendously stimulating night in the stalls. It's hard-edged stuff all right - but it's pin-sharp too, and delivered by director Mehmet Ergen with a confidence entirely at one with his new- look Arcola Theatre.
Photo Simon Annand