Certain cast recordings never leave your playlist. I mean, that’s the case if you’re a MT geek. And of those few cast recordings, the OBC of Sweet Smell of Success has enjoyed a constant spot in my rotation since I happened on the haunting, jazzy score penned by the late Marvin Hamlisch a decade ago.
I’m not sure why the 2002 musical adaptation of the 1957 noir film didn’t get its due. On record it’s a masterpiece. “At the Fountain,” where eager press agent Sidney Falcone realizes he’s at the cusp of greatness, is probably one of the most compelling “I want” songs in the history of musical theatre. The truly haunting “I Cannot Hear the City” serves as both an accidental love song as well as a driving plea for connection. “Dirt” offers a catchy ear-worm of an ensemble number about the insatiable need to feed the masses with sensationalized fodder.
But the original Broadway production, which had its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago, was a financial and critical flop, eking out a little over 100 performances — despite the star power of John Lithgow as the hard-nosed gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker combined with the pedigree of Hamlisch.
One can only assume it’s because the story, about an up-and-coming press agent who upends his moral code to achieve fame and notoriety by befriending corrupt gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker, proved too dark for commercial audience appeal. After all, nearly everyone in the play ultimately gets what they want, even if doing so destroys them along the way. And the innocent bystanders — the central love story between Susan, Hunsecker’s sister, and a gifted jazz pianist — ends, well, less than ideally.
In other words, this ain’t Mamma Mia!
Kokandy’s small-but-mighty production at Theater Wit (now playing through February 2) also adds to the mystery for the show’s failure. Hamlisch’s score, with smokey, period-specific lyrics by Craig Carnelia, is well-presented by a first-rate cast, led by the outstanding David Schlumpf as driven Sidney and Brian Rooney as the uncompromising Hunsecker. Schlumpf, who has the rare ability to seamlessly shift from vulnerable to vindictive, possesses a remarkably powerful voice, knocking “At the Fountain” out of the compact Theater Wit venue. In fact, it’s such a golden moment, one wishes this served as the act one closer. Rooney might be slight in stature, but damn if he doesn’t make you quake in your shoes.
As Susan, J.J.’s kept sister, Victoria Blade strikes a melancholic figure with an underlying bite. As her hidden lover, Nathan Gardner brings boyish charm colored by a lilting tenor.
The omnipresent ensemble, choreographed by Steven Spanopoulos, slinks through the functional set by Zachary Gipson with brooding drive. Aaron Benham’s music direction fares best on the vocals, but needs a bit more attention on the cracker-jack band — particularly the brass. This is a show that shouldn’t be played hesitantly, and more than a few notes missed the mark. Director John D. Glover finds the heartbeat in a show that celebrates heartlessness.
Sweet Smell isn’t produced often, so take advantage of this opportunity to see Kokandy’s special brand of success before it’s yesterday’s news.
“Sweet Smell of Success” is playing at Theater Wit through February 2. More info here >