Sweet Smell of Success
Musical Theatre Guild, which has offered memorable semi-staged concert productions of rarely revived musicals since 1995, has relocated this season to a different performing venue, the Moss Theatre in Santa Monica, following many years at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and the Scherr Forum Theatre in Thousand Oaks. MTG's current offering at the Moss is the 2002 Broadway tuner, "Sweet Smell of Success," based on the classic 1957 Burt Lancaster-Tony Curtis film of the same name.
Boasting a captivating book by Tony-winning playwright John Guare ("Six Degrees of Separation," "Two Gentlemen of Verona"), and an outstanding jazzy score by composer Marvin Hamlisch ("A Chorus Line," "The Goodbye Girl") and lyricist Craig Carnelia, "Sweet Smell" netted seven Tony nominations, winning a lead actor in a musical nod for John Lithgow.
Director Calvin Remsberg, supported by a seasoned cast of 14 actor-singer-dancers, has fashioned a remarkably polished and thoroughly enjoyable production, within the company's typically minimal rehearsal time. Guare's adaptation of the noir-flavored film melodrama is engaging, though the underrated score provides the primary impetus for this company to once again demonstrate the versatile talents of its company members, plus some fine guest performers.
Set in the competitive world of showbiz journalism in the 1950s, the story is a thinly disguised portrait of legendary print columnist and radio commentator Walter Winchell, known for his gangster connections and the power he wielded over the theater and film communities as well as the political arena. Coverage in his column was considered an indispensable career boost to the celebrities mentioned there, except in the frequent cases where he indulged in character assassination, ruthlessly wielding the power of his pen.
The musical spins the story of J.J. Hunsecker (John Sloman), the Winchell-inspired character, a famous syndicated columnist, who is approached by struggling press agent, Sidney Falcone (Zachary Ford), a man who is desperate to secure press coverage for his client, a seedy jazz club. At the club, Falcone meets the glamorous Susan (Ashley Fox Linton), whom he initially does not know is Hunsecker's stepsister. She is there to view the talented pianist/singer Dallas Cochran (Will Collyer), whom protective J.J. does not approve of.
Susan brushes off Falcone's opportunistic bid to get her name in the columns. After J.J. befriends Falcone, a series of deceptions and machinations follow, as the story grows ever darker. Guare's book and the exceptional Hamlisch-Carnelia score smoothly bridge the gap between edgy, sultry drama and the exuberant trappings of an old-fashioned Broadway extravaganza.
The lead roles are in exceptionally fine hands, what with Sloman's gripping portrayal of the ruthless yet charming power player J.J., Ford's perfectly balanced take on the manipulative and desperate loser Falcone, Linton's sultry and alluring Susan, and Collyer's charismatic turn as the hot young talent caught up in the intrigue.
There are terrific supporting turns from Melissa Fahn as J.J.'s mistreated girlfriend Rita and Carol Kline as J.J.'s gutsy secretary Madge. The talented singing and dancing ensemble (Marisa Field, Leslie Stevens, Cassandra Murphy, David Zack, Chuck Bergman, Jeffrey Scott Parsons, Taylor Simmons and Chris Daniel) is in shipshape form with related salutes due to choreographer John Todd and music director Brian P. Kennedy.
One of the great advantages that MTG offers for musical theater lovers is being able to experience notable works that never clicked commercially for any number of reasons or hit shows from the past that simply don't get produced enough. "Sweet Smell of Success," a largely undiscovered gem, is an intoxicating mix of bitter and sweet in its dark story of duplicity, greed and corruption, coupled with the joys of old-fashioned musical theater razzmatazz.
Enthusiastic kudos to Remsberg, the MTG producers, and the top-notch performers and designers who rapidly pulled together one of the company's finest offerings to date-sweet smell of success indeed.
"Sweet Smell of Success" played on Sept. 14 at Moss Theatre at New Roads School, 3131 Olympic Blvd., in Santa Monica. For information on future Musical Theatre Guild shows, call 818-848-6844 or visit www.musicaltheatreguild.com.