I feel bad for Sweet Smell of Success, in a way. I attended the first preview in New York, and the Saturday matinee immediately before opening, and while I have never thought the show was great (or maybe even very good), I also have never thought the show was as terrible as most of the critics and some audience members have made it out to be.
For one, it's seemed to me that it exists fairly well in the musical world. I haven't seen the original film on which the show is based, but the story of a demonic gossip columnist and the lowly press agent who wants to be just like him, to the point of destroying himself and practically everyone he knows, does seem musical to me. And I always thought that composer Marvin Hamlisch got a good handle on the "film noir" type music that peppered the score. The characters, if maybe not always inhabited by the right actors, seemed more or less on target.
At this performance, I began doubting my previous conclusions about the show. There were two things different this time around. First, I was sitting in the orchestra, much closer to the action, and with a different perspective on the action (and Bob Crowley's set) than from the last row of the balcony, where I'd sat two times before. This was also the first performance I'd seen without John Lithgow.
I'd never thought, though, that Lithgow was ideally cast as J.J. Hunsecker, the Walter Winchell-type who parlays his position as the first choice of sixty million daily readers into the seat of corruption in 1952 New York. He's always come across more constipated than nasty (overtly or covertly), and he always seemed to be plugging away mercilessly, mostly just to get through his (minimal) songs and dances. Lithgow is an okay actor, but his performance was just off-key in some way, not really menacing or all-encompassing the way Hunsecker needs to be.
Allen Fitzpatrick, Lithgow's understudy, was very interesting. He's unquestionably a more accomplished and comfortable musical theatre performer, singing and dancing much better than Lithgow. He's also younger, which hurts the nature of his relationship with his sister Susan (Kelli O'Hara) a little bit--the great age difference between Lithgow and O'Hara gave their relationship a much different dynamic than Fitzpatrick brings to it. Fitzpatrick, while more believable as a journalist (don't ask me why, but I could not shake that feeling), doesn't have much star quality. And Lithgow does have that real sense of identification that hits you from the moment the curtain goes up. That's what Hunsecker is about, and the role seems slightly hollow without it. In just about every other way, Fitzpatrick is better equipped for the role, but still makes less of an impression. Theatre is funny, isn't it?
The rest of the show, is more or less, the same. Brian d'Arcy James, as the press agent Sidney Falco(ne) still sings incredibly well, and has the kind of effortless greasiness about him I always wanted to see from Lithgow but never did. Kelli O'Hara is beautiful, sings wonderfully, and has one of the most fully-developed senses of character onstage. Stacey Logan is fine as Falco's girlfriend, Rita, but what a role! She doesn't nothing most of the night, appears in the middle of the second act for a big solo, then disappears again until almost the end, at which point she plays a major role. I feel sorry for any actress thus saddled, and Logan does what she can, but who could do anything? I hate, hate, hate Jack Noseworthy as Susan's love interest, Dallas. He is solidly 2002 in a show that's supposed to take place 50 years earlier. He is out of place, he can barely act, and he looks like he never knows what's going on. That I've wasted this much space discussing his non-performance is a travesty, so I'll stop now.
I couldn't help but feel this time, though, that the show really does have sort of a hokey quality to it. Christopher Wheeldon's choreography never bothered me that much upstairs, but I couldn't help but focus on it in the orchestra, and when it's not necessary (which is, I'm afraid, most of the time), it's not that great. At all. Bob Crowley's set is dark and imposing, perhaps too much so, and his costumes are fine but unspectacular. Lots of tuxedos and suits and some interesting dresses, but nothing at all special.
Still, I enjoy John Guare's book, and Craig Carnelia's lyrics sort of go with it. (Hamlisch's work outshines Carnelia's, though.) I think Guare came up with a pretty darn good book given the overall averageness of the rest of the show, and were it not for the lack of good development for Rita, a nonsensically pivotal character, I might have more good things to say about it still.
With or without Lithgow, I still think Sweet Smell of Success is worth seeing. Even if it's not great theatre, it's interesting theatre, something in relatively short supply in the 2001-2002 Broadway season. It's more than just another movie adaptation, less than the hit or complete artistic success it probably should have been, given the pedigree of its creative team (led by director Nicholas Hytner whom, I am told, is solely responsible for Noseworthy, for reasons I won't go into here). I like parts of it, but am sort of ashamed to admit it, because its flaws are out there in the open, and painfully so.
I think three performances is about all I'll be able to handle of this show. I would love to go back and see Noseworthy's understudy (hopefully, someone who might actually give a performance), but if it enchanted me so little when it was probably at its most bare and true--lacking the star performance of Lithgow--I'm not sure I want to risk that my opinions will be further tarnished. I don't think the show will exactly vanish into obscurity, so if there's a production of the show near you, it's worth checking out, but neither do I expect it to enter the pantheon of modern classics. Misguided, sure. An abomination to the theatre? No way.
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