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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Sweet Smell of Success
Arcola Theatre Winter 2012

Here is yet another in a string this year of first-rate off-West End productions of recent Broadway musicals in which the productions are more impressive than the material. 

In this case it's the 2002 adaptation – music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Craig Carnelia, book by John Guare – of arguably the most cynical American film of the 1950s.

John Guare's book follows the 1957 filmscript by Earnest Lehmann and Clifford Odets quite closely, with one major change. As in the film, JJ Hunsecker is an extremely powerful newspaper columnist, able to create show business careers and end political lives with just a mention, and Sidney Falcone is a small-time press agent desperate to get his clients into the column. 

JJ sees something he likes in Sidney's hunger and takes him on as a protιgι, but JJ has one soft spot, an almost incestuous obsession with his younger sister Susan, and he gives Sidney the job of breaking up her romance with a musician. The central question of film and musical is how low Sidney is prepared to sink to achieve his ambitions. 

The one big alteration for the musical is that in the film Sidney is corrupt from the start, while Guare introduces him as a fairly nice guy lured by JJ and his own ambition into a darkness that really isn't natural to him. This gives a clearer plot arc to the show, but also softens things, making JJ a satanic corrupter rather than merely the biggest devil in a thoroughly corrupt world.

(Put another way, in the film innocent Susan was the aberration in an ugly world, while the musical makes JJ the aberration.) 

But musicals aren't made by their plots, and what keeps Sweet Smell from success is the typically anodyne quality of Marvin Hamlisch's songs, too few of which have much to make them memorable and too many of which have exactly the same structure, of soul-searching soliloquies against a cheering or jeering chorus. 

The big numbers that suggest the excitement of JJ's world – 'The Column' and 'Welcome To The Night' – have some energy, and a pastiche jazz song for Susan's boyfriend – 'One Track Mind' – has an authentic feel, but that's about it. 

None of this takes away from Mehmet Ergen's excellent production or the central performances in it – if the raw material fails to impress, it is partly because we are sure we are seeing it done about as well as it possibly could. 

David Bamber finds all the sliminess in JJ's soul but also additional complicating colours others might have missed – an unfeigned enjoyment in sharing his world with Sidney, the occasional hint of awareness that there's something wrong about his feelings for Susan, a repressed but inescapable Catholicism – in the process creating a much deeper and more complex character than I suspect the musical's creators imagined. 

Adrian der Gregorian makes the most of the newly-defined Sidney, believably taking him from relative innocent through star-struck acolyte to a depth of corruption that frightens even him, and then even further into darkness. 

Caroline Keiff gives Susan more personality and backbone than she had in the film, while his songs allow Stuart Matthew Price as her boyfriend to contribute more to the musical than the character did in the film, and Celia Graham registers by making Sidney's girlfriend not quite as dumb a bimbo as she first appears.

As I've had occasion to write a couple of times earlier this year, this is as fine a production of this musical as you are ever likely to see. It almost makes the show itself seem worth the effort and the talents of those involved in bringing it alive.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Sweet Smell of Success - Arcola Theatre   2012

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