I’ve been impressed with quite a few local shows this season. We have certainly been blessed with some solid productions around here lately. But by far Sweet Smell of Success, the musical that’s just opened at Circle Theatre, is the one that really blew me away. If you want to witness searing performances, vivid artistic and technical direction, and creative choreography, don’t miss this one. It’s also fascinating that the characters are based upon actual people.
If you’re a fan of film noir, you may already know the bleakly cynical 1957 movie about the dark side of show business starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.
In 2002 the musical version, with John Guare’s book and Marvin Hamlisch’s score, opened on Broadway. Though the production closed after only a hundred or so performances, John Lithgow garnered a Tony in the Lancaster role, as a powerful Manhattan gossip columnist.
If you’re looking for Brigadoon or Camelot, this is not the show for you. This musical won’t make you whistle your way up the aisle. The songs are as sharp, biting, and relentless as the nasty characters who sing them. Yet there’s great energy and attitude.
Walter Winchell, now virtually forgotten, was a tyrannical show biz columnist who used his power to discipline or destroy those he felt needed it. During the periodic “circulation wars” of the big daily newspapers, desperate editors allowed innuendo and often downright fabrication to seep into print if it could snare a bump in readership. Jon Steinhagen is chillingly credible as arrogant J.J. Hunsecker. He’s a right-wing showbiz columnist who believes himself to be Broadway’s avenging angel. He’s also got a warped, uncomfortably close bond with his kid sister (Katrina Kuntz).
Steinhagen, well known as a composer, is clearly adept at singing and acting, too. He strongly conveys a sense of J.J.’s menace and malice, commanding every scene he’s in. His ice-cold gaze through his fish-eye glasses is pretty creepy.
As Sidney Falco, the Tony Curtis role, Michael Mahler is also impressive as a two-bit, success-starved publicity agent who would sell his grandmother to get publicity for his clients.
Recognizing he’s just as power-hungry and unprincipled, Hunsecker enlists Falco’s aid in planting fictitious slurs in the newspaper to ruin the reputation of a jazz singer (Scott Allen Luke) who’s romantically involved with the columnist’s sister, Susan. But she’s finally had enough of her possessive brother running her life.
As the two lovers, Luke and Kuntz are good-looking and sing well, but they’re rather vaguely delineated. Certainly this is purposeful, so these characters won’t pull focus from J.J. and Sidney”the snake charmer and his coiled cobra.
The real-life story was that it was not really Walter Winchell’s sister he was so possessively attached to. He used his column to destroy the man who wanted to marry his daughter.
Kelly Schumann is the assistant who does much of the legwork for J.J.’s column. Scott Stangland is a corrupt NYPD detective.
The midtown Manhattan club district of the ’50s is brilliantly recreated by Bob Knuth’s set. Several large scrims are used to project crisp black-and-white images, such as Times Square or the Hudson River. This has the effect of creating a sleek, nocturnal world while also saluting the silky black-and-white cinematography of James Wong Howe in the 1957 film.
Jeffrey Kelly’s period-perfect costuming smartly recreates the era when everyone wore hats, ladies always wore gloves, even in the summer, and young women who looked like showgirls hawked cigarettes table to table. Christopher Ash’s lighting design effectively gives the proper gray blue tone to many scenes, again in keeping with the vintage “silver screen” look.
Peter J. Storms is musical director. Steve Cothard is stage manager.