Monday, 12 November 2012

Theatre review: Sweet Smell of Success

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The official critics are being invited to this on Wednesday.

There's quite a selection of musicals to choose from on the fringe at the moment, and the next to throw his hat in the ring is the Arcola's Mehmet Ergen, who directs a musical adaptation of 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success. With celebrity gossip seeming to be all that's keeping the print media in business, a look back at its earlier days suggests it was a dirty business even then. Based on the real-life journalist Walter Winchell, who first popularised the gossip column with his overheard conversations of Broadway and Hollywood stars, JJ Hunsecker (David Bamber) is the man everyone needs to impress if they're going to make it big in showbiz. Sidney Falcone (Adrian der Gregorian) is a floundering agent who can't get his clients into the paper for love nor money, until a chance encounter with JJ, who thinks Sidney is a friend of his sister's. JJ has a somewhat creepily overprotective relationship with his much younger sister Susan (Caroline Keiff,) and wants Sindey to spy on her and particularly her romantic life - in exchange he'll take him under his wing.

A couple of minor preview wobbles aside this is looking like a slick show. This is a big old-fashioned musical with a bit of a sinister bite to it, and much as I don't call myself a fan of musicals and dance, there is a certain thrill to being up close to some energetic dance routines (here choreographed by Nathan M Wright) in an intimate space. The four leads (Stuart Matthew Price plays Susan's piano-playing boyfriend Dallas) are all in very strong voice and the songs with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Craig Carnelia are strong foot-tappers. The highlight is the first act's "Don't Know Where You Leave Off," powerfully sung by Keiff and Price, although the way it's staged here made it hard to see from where I was sitting in the front row on audience right.

In the second act the action takes a particularly dark turn that's handled well in John Guare's book and by the production. On the downside musically the second half is a lot less interesting, featuring far too many reprises. But at least there are a few good tunes in the show, even if they're overused, and as well as plenty of good moments for its leads (and a nice turn from Celia Graham as Sidney's horribly mistreated girlfriend) there's also a lot of numbers that give the ensemble a chance to show off their singing and dancing skills. A story about making deals with the devil that's not perfect, but worth the trip to Dalston and a good addition to the pre-Christmas song and dance shows currently running.

Sweet Smell of Success by Marvin Hamlisch, Craig Carnelia and John Guare is booking until the 22nd of December at the Arcola Theatre's Studio 1.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

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