In a world where anyone can make their opinions known via social media, it’s difficult to comprehend a world in which one or two columnists dominated the media and could single-handedly mould public opinion. Debates about ethics in journalism, however, will never end. Based on the 1957 film starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis (inspired by a novella by Ernest Lehman) with a score by the late Marvin Hamlisch (best known for A Chorus Line), Sweet Smell of Success flopped on Broadway after three months in 2002, but Mehmet Ergen’s exhilarating production shows it to be well deserving of a second chance. Tapping into a quintessentially post-war New York sensibility in which glamour and seediness are almost interchangeable, it’s the same world as Guys and Dolls, but there’s a heart of darkness where the earlier show had a heart of gold.
Ruling the roost with his poison pen is ex-vaudevillian turned gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker with a daily readership of 60 million people; aspiring and established celebrities are desperate to be mentioned in his column, while getting on his bad side can mean career suicide. His personal life is a shadowy affair and it’s immediately obvious that there’s something queasy about his relationship with his much younger half sister, Susan. When he bumps into aspiring press agent Sidney Falcone desperately fishing for clients at the downmarket Voodoo Club, a bargain is struck (his ‘Lana Turner at Schwab’s drugstore’ moment), initially played out more in the manner of Bialystock and Bloom than Faust and Mephistopheles. Naturally, no favours are given out for free and Sidney is given the task of destroying the relationship between Susan and her ‘nobody’ jazz musician lover by any means necessary.
The brassy jazz score lends itself naturally to ultra-stylised Fosse-esque set pieces (excellent work by Nathan M. Wright), creating a taut juxtaposition with the moral bleakness and film noir ambiance. The more intimate numbers are just as effective, particularly the sensual love duet ‘Don’t Know Where I Leave Off’ and Hunsecker’s skin-crawlingly creepy ‘For Susan’. The band (led by Bob Broad) play ferociously, but many of Craig Carnelia’s lyrics are blunted by the sheer force of sound.
Ergen’s superb cast of sixteen is helmed by David Bamber (forever associated with Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice), who has the ideal amount of sexual ambivalence and rat-like nastiness. Adrian der Gregorian is equally good as his protÃ©gÃ©, attempting to outwit his master at his own game and ultimately just as morally bankrupt. Caroline Keiff gives a shining performance as Susan, the damaged young woman trapped in an ivory tower by her overly protective guardian (echoes of Sweeney Todd‘s Johanna and Judge Turpin), beautifully matched with Stuart Matthew Price’s golden voice as the independently-minded musician Dallas. Celia Graham also provides an eye-catching turn as Rita, the Miss Adelaide-esque cigarette girl pimped out by Sidney to a rival columnist, and the ensemble are pin-sharp.
It’s tempting to contemplate would Kander and Ebb have done with the same source material – probably something very similar. A real fringe treat that pulsates with energy and reaps ripe rewards.