The Arlington Players is giving local audiences a chance to find out about the strengths of a fine musical drama which was given short shrift on Broadway six years ago. Their area premiere production of "Sweet Smell of Success" runs through May 3 at the Thomas Jefferson Theatre.
Director John K. Monnett concentrates the entire company's efforts on the story-telling aspect of the drama. The pace is taken just a bit slowly and some of the slow moments that could be finessed with stagecraft are allowed to remain rather clunky, but for the entire two hour and forty minute show, the story is being clearly and succinctly told and the challenging, constantly interesting score is being delivered with a sense of confidence.
On Broadway, despite superb work by such luminaries as John Lithgow, Brian d'Arcy James and a break-through performance for Kelli O'Hara, who just now is wowing New York audiences in the revival of "South Pacific," the show was only able to run for three months. It closed shortly after receiving only one of the seven Tony Awards for which it was nominated. That one was for John Lithgow's staring performance as the Walter Winchell type gossip columnist at the heart of the story.
That story is based on the famous film-noir movie of the 1950s that starred Burt Lancaster as the columnist and Tony Curtis as a New York press agent anxious to get ahead.
Here, the columnist is played with a fine sense of self-importance so right for the character by Blakeman Brophy. Steve Block handles the press agent role with a bit more reticence in the early going than the part requires, but Block does manage to portray the painful power of the press agent's final struggle to hold on to even a shred of decency.
Erin Richardson and John Patrick Loughney are the lovers - the columnist's sister and the nightclub-singer whose affair triggers the dilemma for the press agent.
With its setting in the glittering society spots overlaying the ugly underbelly of the urban jungle, and its characterization of a ruthless, ego driven celebrity with a touch of incestuous fascination for his sister, the story isn't quite the normal material for a musical. It is, instead, dark and disturbing.
But it is brought into sharp focus and made compelling through a jazz infused score that captures the smooth nightclub styles of the 50s combined with the sharp background music featured in so many Hollywood movies of the time. The music for the score is by Marvin Hamlisch, the composer of Broadway's mega hit "A Chorus Line" and Hollywood theme songs such as "The Way We Were," and now the "Principal Pops Conductor" for the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.
Hamlisch's music carries the words of lyricist Craig Carnelia. Those words suit the characters of the press agent, the columnist, his sister and the club singer who loves her. Smooth jazz crooning on "I Cannot Hear the City," a big solo for the press agent ("At The Fountain") and a plaintive ballad for the columnist ("For Susan") serve the male characters well, while the columnist's sister gets a sweet duet with the crooner ("Don't Know Where You Leave Off") and the press agent's girlfriend gets a big second act number called "Rita's Tune" which Elizabeth Yeats sells to the seats in the back of the hall in her big moment of the evening.
Some of the sharpest music and lyrics, however, are reserved for the large ensemble, the people of the city that, in the script written by John Guare, act as the equivalent of a singing, dancing Greek chorus to move the tragedy to its conclusion. From the early "Welcome to the Night" to the second act's repeated chant of "Break It Up," much of the impact of this production is provided by that ensemble singing full out while executing the sharp steps of Monnett, who choreographed as well as directed the show.
A sixteen-member pit orchestra is led by Leah Kocsis, who takes the challenging score just a bit slowly in order to make sure all the tricky rhythms are handled properly. Overall, it is an impressive piece of work.
The piano-bar style work on "Laughing All the Way to the Bank" and the soaring trumpet on "Welcome to the Night" are particularly notable.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.