JJ Hunsecker pens the ultimate vitriolic New York gossip column. Everyone wants to get in to JJ. Unfortunately the only thing JJ wants to get into is his much younger sister Susan, and so uses patsy press agent Sidney Falco to thwart her more natural romance with crooner Dallas. This unsavoury relationship, as inappropriate as though Daddy Warbucks were caught bouncing Annie one too many times on his knee, threatens to alienate the audience and is only redeemed by David Bamber’s meticulously-observed and vigorously naturalistic performance.

Bamber heads a superb company, and casting director Ri McDaid-Wren deserves the highest possible praise for mining a seam of such excellence from a roll call of serial understudies and regional companies. Hopefully, this is the breakout role for Adrian der Gregorian (Mr. Maria Friedman, as it happens, and undeniably the best cover Albin in La Cage aux Folles), whose solid blokeishness, combined with an effortless singing voice, gives depth and pathos to Sidney. His frustrated ambitions are reasonantly realised in his rendition of “At The Fountain”.

Caroline Keiff’s crooked smile and Nigella Lawson tresses make her a compelling Susan, but it’s a thankless role of which even Kelli O’Hara couldn’t make much on Broadway, and her thunder is stolen first by Rebecca Louis as JJ’s right-hand woman Madge injecting pithy Thelma Ritter-esque humour into the show, and then in Celia Graham’s revelatory performance as the actress/waitress who proves herself not overawed by JJ and wrings every nuance out of her big second act number “Rita’s Tune”.

Mark Bailey’s monochrome design is coolly detailed and makes good use of the double-height space. The costumes are remarkably high standard for the fringe – some of the dresses actually look new – and the composite set is slick, although maybe doesn’t quite do enough to differentiate the smart from the sleazy night club venues. Best to go for the centre balcony seating if you want to avoid some tricky sight-lines in the three-sided auditorium.

Highlight of the night is definitely the ensemble choreography by Australian Nathan M. Wright – we’re getting used to superb dancing in venues like Upstairs at the Gatehouse, the Union Theatre and Southwark Playhouse, but there’s an inventiveness and intensity of both design and execution here that really pushes the envelope.

The credentials of the creators of Sweet Smell are a roll-call of contemporary theatrical gold: composer Marvin Hamlisch wrote A Chorus Line, wordsmith John Guare wrote Six Degrees of Separation and the Alexander Mackendrick movie on which it is based featured crackling electric dialogue from Clifford Odets. The characters are unashamedly lifted from the pages of Damon Runyon – the tough-nut boss, his hardboiled secretary, a pert wannabe actress-slash-waitress, grifter mayor and doughnut-hefty bent cop – and the plot, based on the corruptable power of a newspaperman, is as topical in the Murdoch era as it was when Walter Winchell ruled over New York with his waspish column, followed avidly by 60 million readers.

Like Call Me Madam, it’s set in the early 50’s, the dying days of the Truman administration, and like Guys and Dolls it hugs the gutters of Times Square with its low-life bar-hopping skirt-chasers. Between them, those shows had a dozen hit songs still popular sixty years later:Sweet Smell has none. Hamlisch’s score is clever and rich, if still steeped in the big band and crooner era of the previous decade, and so unvaried you feel occasionally trapped in a Michael Buble album, but the orchestrations and the band led by Bob Broad are beyond first rate. Although – am I the only one to spot a resemblance between the chorus number “Get You in JJ” and “Let’s Have Lunch” from ten-years-earlier Sunset Boulevard?

Craig Carnelia’s lyrics are pin-sharp and immaculately well-articulated by the cast, but the sheer density of too many songs by and about men who make their living from words, and no romantic ballads or an extractable “standard” to hum on the tube home, don’t make for a lastingly memorable musical. Brilliant production, though.

Date reviewed: Wednesday 14th November 2012
Image © Simon Annand

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.