Music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Crag Carnelia
Book by John Guare
Arcola Theatre, Dalston, London, until December 22, 2012
The Arcola Theatre in Dalston adds to its reputation for quality by presenting an astonishingly assured and beautifully staged UK premiere of Marvin Hamlish’s musical adaptation of the great 1957 movie The Sweet Smell of Success.
The original had memorable performances from Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, and was hot stuff for the time, as it was an excoriating portrayal of a venal, all-powerful, right-wing gossip columnist J J Hunsecker, loosely based on Walter Winchell. JJ plots with an ambitious young press agent Sidney Falcone to ruin his sister’s relations with a young nightclub singer whom he deems to be inappropriate.
JJ is a piece of work. He threatens a Senator with “JJ makes sure that people like you, who run the country, are living their lives the way they should”. In the age of the Leveson Inquiry this is bang up to date and we can reflect that nothing much has changed when it comes to egomaniacal press figures spinning “slimy scandals and phoney patriotics”.
John Lithgow (currently starring at the National Theatre) created the role of JJ on Broadway in 2002, under the direction of Nicholas Hytner, and won the Tony for it. Turning such a dark piece into a musical was a brave step for all concerned but the resulting book, by playwright John Guare, is tight and gripping and perfectly draws out the complexity in these characters. New York City was at its peak and king of it all was JJ, whose column was ready by 60 million readers. Like his pal J Edgar Hoover, he knew everyone and pulled all the strings. Such absolute power inevitably corrupted absolutely.
David Bamber, more familiar playing ineffectual types, is totally convincing here as the snake-like JJ, a man with seemingly unlimited power over everyone in the country except for his young sister Susan (Caroline Keiff), for whom he has a creepy, incestuous, obsession.
The parasitic relationship of press agents to all powerful gossip columnists, historically at its height then, is wonderfully explored and Adrian der Gregorian brings great depth to the ambitious Sidney. Half enthralled to JJ and half disgusted, he soon falls foul of the crazed scheming and his decision to get back in with JJ, in a vain attempt to usurp him, ultimately poisons his friendship with Susan.
Mehmet Ergen (the Acrola’s artistic director) stages the piece with a great fluency and sense for the period. There isn’t a weak link from Nathan M Wright’s slick choreography, especially in the number “Dirt”, to Mark Bailey’s glorious costumes. A fine cast illuminate some great character parts and Rebecca Louis as JJ’s hardboiled secretary Madge and Celia Graham as an alluring match girl Rita stand out. Indeed Graham, who has a look of Susan Hayward, looks like she stepped off the silver screen.
Hamlisch (who sadly died in August) delivers a sassy, jazz infused, score that is rich and varied, and numbers like ‘Got to get the columns’ are perfectly integrated with the book. Carnelia’s lyrics are often not a match for him but it’s a score that brings 1950s New York vividly into focus.
At the risk of repeating myself, with this, Steel Pier and Victor/Victoria, it is the London Fringe that is at the vanguard in musical theatre in London and is putting the West End to shame.