The title of Sweet Smell of Success, a 2002 Broadway musical based on the eponymous novella and 1957 film, is just one of many ironies that pour out from the stage as well as this show’s own history. Far from being a sweet success, the original production - directed by Nicholas Hytner in his last freelance outing before taking on the running of the National Theatre - was a fast flop, running for just three months. And the piece itself is much more sour than sweet, full of the bitter stench of (im)moral compromises undertaken by each of its lead characters, their bad motives and worse outcomes.
Tosh Wanagho-Maud (Club Zanzibar Singer) in Sweet Smell Of Success the Arcola Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
But the British premiere at the Arcola manages the paradoxical feat of now being sensationally successful in its queasily exhilarating portrait of the steamy underworld of celebrity journalism in 1950s America, where a single writer could command a readership of some 60 million people. Yet everything about the way JJ Hunsecker works is corrupt, even criminal; and as played by David Bamber, his total lack of a moral compass makes him into a truly compelling theatrical monster.
Everyone around him is corrupted in turn, from his protege Sidney Falcone (played with insinuating creepiness by Adrian der Gregorian) to his beautiful sister Susan (the radiantly voiced Caroline Keiff) and her secret boyfriend Dallas (Stuart Matthew Price, one of our very best singers).
Marvin Hamlisch, in his final outing as a composer of musicals, animates it with a richly melodic and jaggedly jazzy score, superbly rendered by a sometimes over-amplified onstage band under the musical direction of Bob Broad. The juxtapositions between presentational club numbers and earnest character items is beautifully handled by director Mehmet Ergen, whose skillful designer Mark Bailey creates stunning new vistas, including a sunken pit at the rear of the stage to provide a home for the chorus. Nathan M Wright’s choreography also works wonders in this small space to give the show propulsive movement and provide a necessary respite from the show’s biliously bleak atmosphere.
The result is another stunning fringe rediscovery of a seriously underrated Broadway show that comes into gleaming focus here as a stirring, disturbing portrait of moral ambivalence.