"Sweet Smell of Success" tried out in downtown Chicago in January 2002 — on its way to the sour stench of fiscal failure on Broadway. I was there for opening night, and I think I have only seen this musical one other time in the last dozen years.
The Broadway show, which starred John Lithgow and Brian D'Arcy James, went down for a number of reasons, most of which flashed back to me as I sat in the friendly confines of Theater Wit, watching an intriguing and strikingly competent new Chicago production of "Sweet Smell" by the small but ambitious musical company Kokandy Productions. One reason for its demise was that the noir-cool of the 1957 movie about a powerful but amoral gossip columnist named J.J. Hunsecker and the hungry press agent, Sidney, who makes a Faustian bargain and lands in the journalistic devil's clutches (those were the days), did not translate ideally to the stage. The bookwriter, John Guare, was dealing with a plot that included the columnist's excessive interest in the well-being of his younger half-sister Susan. Sidney gets embroiled in all of that after his new boss tries to kill off Susan's romance with a piano player). That is a shocking and potentially dramatic theme, but Guare did not manage to get the tone, or the emphasis, quite right. And the show's score was penned by Marvin Hamlisch, a great composer who loved beautiful, romantic melodies that, as unintentional as it was, created a jarring mismatch of book and music.
And thus segments of "Sweet Smell" (lyrics are by Craig Carnelia) have an air of the creepy, especially the number "For Susan," wherein Hunsecker, who is played here by Brian Rooney, sings an overly plaintive ballad about everything he has done for the object of his affection over the years. The prolonged number gave me the shivers in 2002, and did again last weekend. If only that song had a Kander and Ebb-style edge, it would have worked. "For Susan" is part of Act 1. Few shows fall off so steep a cliff after intermission.
But during Act 1, which is the only act of this show that could ever fully work, barring serious revision, the show from Kokandy was genuinely exciting and impressive. Hamlisch is gone now, of course, which makes the experience of hearing three of his very best songs for the theater, "I Cannot Hear the City," "Don't Know Where You Leave Off" and "At the Fountain" yet more resonant. And director John Glover's show has, in David Schlumpf and Nathan Gardner, two male vocalists who really can deliver those numbers. Aaron Benham did fine work as musical director.
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Gardner, charming throughout, is no slouch. But Schlumpf, a clean-cut, strikingly handsome fellow with a touch of Don Draper about him, goes yet further. His thrilling rendition of "At the Fountain" would carry in a Broadway theater. In a North Side black box, it brings a real frisson of excitement. As well acted as superbly sung, this is a pace-setting off-Loop performance for 2014.
Glover's production really is very smart throughout; his Susan, Victoria Blade, comes with the lingering sadness that anyone dealing with such a scumbag of a brother must surely carry. And there's a very smart and cynical performance from Christina Hall, who plays Rita, Falcone's long-suffering waitress-girlfriend, dumped on the trash-heap of the boyfriend's career ambitions. Rooney, who has the toughest role of all, is not the same level of singer, but that's not crucial (he's up there with Lithgow, at least). And he captures the aching loneliness of the nighttime showbiz beat, folks, a topic with which I have some familiarity.
Not all of the big production numbers are fully successful — the space is limiting and the physical environment is nothing out of the ordinary. But the young cast is talented and, more importantly, fearless.
Maybe one day someone will revise the book to "Sweet Smell." If Glover could get his hands on that, then the streets might really start talking. Even now, fans of small, well-sung musicals will find this worth a trudge through the ice. Enjoy. Cringe a little. Enjoy again. Cringe some more.
When: Through Feb.2
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $38 at 773-975-8150 or theaterwit.org