The 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success, based on Ernest Lehman's novella, throbs with pitch-black need and greed: Tony Curtis's weasely press agent Sidney Falco, née Falconi, fairly drips with desperation to get back in the good graces of Burt Lancaster's heartless, powerful gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker, while screenwriters Lehman and Clifford Odets set their cat-and-mouse game against a noirish New York that's bewitchingly bitchy.
This is the second production I've seen of the 2002 Broadway musical adapted from the film, and despite its impressively credentialed creators—the playwright John Guare, composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Craig Carnelia—Sweet Smell onstage strikes me as fundamentally, fatally lacking in cynicism. Guare expands the original, tightly coiled story, showing Falco's brief rise and fall as something of a morality tale, a tactic that just doesn't quite work. Where the film takes it as a given that Falco would want into Hunsecker's world, the play tries to convince us of its allure and fails.
Hamlisch's score, too, can't resist the kind of bright, sunny melodies that are anathema to the cool jazz mood of noir. They're well executed, though, by the cast of Kokandy Productions's revival. David Schlumpf's Falco has a clear, strong voice and gets under his character's slimy, social-climbing skin quite effectively, and Victoria Blade and Nathan Gardner have appeal as the lovelorn ingenues who get caught in the crossfire of Hunsecker and Falco's fight. Brian Rooney hasn't quite found his footing as the hardballing Hunsecker—admittedly a tough role to sell.
John D. Glover's staging is competent if a little crowded on a Theater Wit stage that's been halved to hide the four-piece orchestra. But the ensemble, which is meant to serve as a sort of ominous Greek chorus musically commenting on Sidney's actions, comes across as far too chipper and decent a group. This embodiment of the city's corrupting spirit needs a hard-edged menace, but these kids smell all too sweet.
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