Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Sweet Smell of Success
New Line Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's review of Crossin' Over


The Cast
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
In a sense, the stage has never been so empty. It's fully peopled, but it's a late night world of smirking nightclub owners and press agents and would-be ingénues, all starved for success, leaving humanity in short supply. It's the opposite of Our Town, where only the set pieces are meant to look fake.

But don't worry, there's also a beautiful love story growing up between the cracks, like some defiant orchid. Romance, in fact, gains synergy under the direction of Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor: the dominant, grueling cynicism of Sweet Smell of Success only makes the romantic subplot more compelling. We're soon thirsty for an idealistic young couple like Susan and Dallas—and Ann Hier and Sean Michael are on hand to fill the bill, with wallflower charm in the midst of a clamorous mob.

Inspired by the ghastly power of real-life columnist Walter Winchell in the days of the anti-communist "red scare," the 1957 film is nicely brought to the stage by John Guare's book, and the music and lyrics of Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia. The musical ran on Broadway for 109 performances in 2002. Here, the thinking man's everyman, Zachary Allen Farmer, plays all-powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker, Susan's half-brother, and Matt Pentecost is his up-from-the-gutter apprentice, Sidney Falco.

Sixty years ago the stylish, acrid movie starred Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in those roles. And in both play and movie Hunsecker comes off as a sort of chess grandmaster—brash, disdainful, and mostly unreadable. But in this local stage premiere, Mr. Pentecost is also on hand to add youthful excitement to the ruthless proceedings, with a thrilling singing voice, caught in the moral whipsaw originally created by screenwriters Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman.

It's all what happens when the need for dominance and self-glorification swallows up decency and spits it back out as tabloid sentiment. And that, of course, is why Hunsecker's half-sister must attempt to break free, to escape with the love of her life. It's the stuff of grand opera in a cool, be-bop setting.

Ms. Hier and Mr. Michael make an excellent pair of grown-up lovers, though her Susan is trampled by her half-brother's controlling instincts, and this Dallas is deeply disenchanted with any sort of authority, like any good jazz musician. But Hunsecker's protectiveness may be forgivable: his father died, and later her father abandoned their mother, and then their mother killed herself, adding to the haunted tension in the little family that remains.

This musicalized Hunsecker also gets a great tender/creepy waltz with Susan, to fill out their relationship in unexpected ways. And both Mr. Michael and Ms. Hier happen to be excellent singers, which adds a miraculous air to their out-of-place humanity. Of course, if everyone on stage performed it all in togas and laurel leaves, it would still make perfect sense.

It's a show that's full of kind-hearted people showing their tough edge, and tough-hearted people striving to show a kindly façade. The trick, as in real life, is in telling the difference between the two. There's more great work on stage from Sarah Porter as Sidney's long-suffering girlfriend, and from Jason Blackburn, artistically towering in two very lowly roles: first as a smirking, spineless club owner, and later as a second-ranked gossip columnist who's achingly jealous of Hunsecker's status and power.

Through June 24, 2017, at the Marcelle Theatre in the Grand Center arts district, 3310 Samuel Shepherd Blvd., St. Louis, MO. For more information visit www.newlinetheatre.org.

The Players:
Sidney Falco: Matt Pentecost
J.J. Hunsecker: Zachary Allen Farmer
Susan Hunsecker: Ann Hier
Dallas Cochran: Sean Michael
Rita: Sarah Porter
Madge: Kimi Short
Lt. Kello: Kent Coffel
Otis Elwell: Jason Blackburn
New Yorkers: Jason Blackburn, Mara Bollini, Kent Coffel, Alison Helmer, William Pendergast, Michelle Sauer, Christopher Strawhun, Sara Rae Womack

The New Line Band:
Conductor/Piano: Jeffrey Richard Carter
Trumpet: Kaela Barnett
Keyboard: Sue Goldford
Reeds: Steven Johnson
Percussion: Clancy Newell
Bass: Jake Stergos

The Artistic Staff:
Directors: Scott Miller, Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Music Director: Jeffrey Richard Carter
Choreographer: Taylor Pietz
Stage Manager: Patrick Donnigan
Scenic and Lighting Designer: Rob Lippert
Costume Designer: Sarah Porter
Sound Designer: Elli Castonguay
Props Master: Kimi Short
Box Office Manager: Jason Klefisch
Volunteer Coordinator: Alison Helmer
Graphic Designer: Matt Reedy


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