Sweet Smell of Success Book by John Guare. Music by Marvin Hamlisch. Lyrics by Craig Carnelia. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. Scenic and costume design by Bob Crowley. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Cast: John Lithgow, Brian d'Arcy James, Kelli O'Hara, Jack Noseworthy, Stacey Logan.
Sweet Smell of Success, which opened tonight at the Martin Beck Theatre, will go down in the record books as a real heartbreaker; one of those fabulous sounding new musicals with an impeccable pedigree which never quite comes together and ultimately only disappoints. John Guare’s book is intelligently adapted from the film of the same name, but never manages to make the right points at the right time. The music, by Marvin Hamlisch, oozes period swank and jazzy themes, but is sabotaged at every turn by Craig Carnelia’s less than perfect lyrics. Nicholas Hynter, with the dubious help of moribund choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, seems never in control of the events on stage long enough to make anything captivating and entertaining from the incongruous elements.
The evening would be a total loss were it not for the amazing performances of John Lithgow and Brian d’Arcy James.
John Lithgow holds Sweet Smell of Success together, seemingly by sheer force of will. Essentially a very warm and personable actor, Lithgow is an odd choice to play J. J. Hunsecker, the cold, powerful, manipulative, and at times repulsive gossip columnist. Eschewing his familiar mannerisms and twitches, Lithgow has created a disturbing persona, a character of towering ego who cynically panders to the base instincts of his readers with apparent glee. Unfortunately, having created this magnificent character, he is given far too little to do. And what he has been given, which essentially amounts to a wannabe 11 o’clock number titled “Don’t Look Now,” is without question the weakest song in a show full of weak songs.
If Lithgow holds the show together, then Brian d’Arcy James drives it forward, unrelenting, inch by inch. Always the consummate musical theatre performer, his doomed press flack Sidney Falco is responsible for what emotional and musical impact the show has. Here, Brian d’Arcy James assumes the stature almost of a force of nature. The lust for the sweet life is right there on the surface and he plays it for all it’s worth in a performance that completely overpowers everyone else on stage. Sweet Smell only truly comes alive during his numbers.
Kelli O’Hara as Susan, J.J.’s sister and obsession, and Jack Noseworthy as Jazz musician Dallas make little or no impact. Stacey Logan, Sidney’s girlfriend Rita, makes a big impact in “Rita’s Tune” at the top of the second act, but then disappears back into the chorus.
Bob Crowley is responsible for both the dark sets and costumes, which are uninteresting at best and only made noticeable by the subtle, moody lighting designed by Natasha Katz.