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Sweet Smell of Success
Music by Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics by Craig Carnelia
Book by John Guare
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
June 3, 2017

Ann Hier, Zachary Allen Farmer, Matt Pentecost
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

It’s a somewhat obscure musical that had a short run on Broadway, won a few awards and received a mixed critical reception, and it’s based on a movie that’s well-regarded by critics but isn’t exactly a household name. I hadn’t seen the film before seeing New Line’s newest production of Sweet Smell of Success, although I had heard of the film and the musical. Oddly, I don’t think familiarity with the source material matters much in terms of enjoying this show, even though its subject matter revolves heavily around the concept of success, notoriety, and the sheer level of power that can come from being a household name. This is the kind of show that New Line does especially well–a show that might have been too “small” in a sense for Broadway. It’s the kind of show where an intimate presentation in a venue like New Line’s Marcelle Theatre can be ideal, to scale this story down to its most important elements–the characters, the raw emotions, and the key concepts at play in this seedy, sultry, and sometimes downright scary morality tale that focuses on the down side of the quest for fame.

The story takes the audience to New York City in the 1950’s, to a world in which gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Zachary Allen Farmer) exerts his influence through his nationally syndicated and widely read newspaper column. As the ensemble asserts in the opening number, making it into “The Column” is essential for achieving that elusive measure of success for the small nightclubs that host celebrity sightings, the up-and-coming actors and musicians who are looking for their big breaks, and even the press agents who work tirelessly to get their clients mentioned by J.J. One of these press agents is Sidney (Matt Pentecost), who makes call after unheeded call to J. J.’s secretary Madge (Kimi Short) in hopes of getting his only client, the small but ambitious Club Voodoo, a mention. Sidney’s luck doesn’t improve until a chance meeting at the club with an aspiring young actress who turns out to be J.J.’s sister, Susan (Ann Hier), who is indulging in a secret romantic relationship with struggling jazz musician Dallas (Sean Michael). When J. J. himself walks into the club looking for Susan, Sydney tries to help her by pretending to be her friend, and ends up getting J.J.’s notice, which begins Sidney’s  ascent up the ladder to success, at the increasing expense of his own scruples. As J.J.’s true character is revealed, along with his creepy obsession with and sense of control over Susan, Sidney is caught between his desire for celebrity and influence under J.J.’s tutelage and his genuine fondness for Susan and desire to help her. The problem Sidney finds is essentially, how does a person hold onto his own soul after he sells it in the name of success? The consequences turn out to be messy for some, and tragic for others.

The setting and overall atmosphere of this production is masterfully achieved by virtue of strong production values and an ideal setting. As excellent as New Line’s shows have been since moving to the Marcelle, I think this production has been most successful at making the most of this venue.  The small, intimate atmosphere and the meticulously crafted set by Rob Lippert create the ideal mood for this jazzy, dark, and challenging piece of theatre. Lippert’s excellent lighting also contributes to the Noir-ish atmosphere, as do Sarah Porter’s stylish and detailed period costumes. The pacing is strong here, as well, with the mood being tense when it needs to be, and even downright brutal and bleak when necessary as well. There are also some much-needed moments of humor in the midst of the tension, though, and these are also handled well by way of Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor’s astute direction and the extremely strong cast that the directors have assembled, as well as the excellent band led by music director Jeffrey Richard Carter, bringing the show’s jazz-influenced score to life with a bold attitude and style.

The focus of much of this play is on the figures of J.J. and Sidney, and both parts are cast well with veteran New Liners. Farmer brings a sense of self-assured determination and a steely resolve to the role of the domineering J.J., as well as a wry sense of humor and a strong voice. His status as the influential power player is unquestioned. Pentecost brings a sense of weary charm to Sidney that makes the viewer want to sympathize with him to a point. His scenes with Farmer and with Hier are particularly memorable. Hier, in the difficult role of the conflicted, dominated Susan, shines as well, bringing a quiet strength to the role that makes itself more clear as the show goes on. Michael, as Susan’s principled secret boyfriend Dallas, is also excellent, displaying a strong tenor voice on “I Cannot Hear the City” and “One Track Mind”. His chemistry with Hier is credible, as well. There’s also a standout performance from New Line veteran Sarah Porter, making an impression is the small but important role of Sidney’s girlfriend, waitress and aspiring actress Rita, who gets the show’s single best solo musical moment with “Rita’s Tune”. Kent Coffel as corrupt police Lt. Kello, Jason Blackburn as rival gossip columnist Otis Elwell, and Short as J.J.’s no-nonsense secretary Madge lend excellent support as well, as does the show’s cohesive ensemble, playing a range of New Yorkers and contributing to memorable musical numbers like the intro and the energetic, sharp and chilling “Dirt”.

This is a challenging, incisive story with an incisive message, richly drawn characters, and even more richly drawn settings. It’s an homage to Film Noir, tied to its time in one way, but surprisingly timeless in another, since the modes of communication and the names may change over the years, but human nature hasn’t changed, and neither have the temptations that come with the thirst for knowledge, influence, and especially power and control. Sweet Smell of Success isn’t always sweet, but at New Line and with this cast and creative team, it’s certainly a success.

Cast of Sweet Smell of Success
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Sweet Smell of Success at the Marcelle Theatre until June 24, 2017.

 

 

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They’re Playing Our Song
Music by Marvin Harmlisch, Lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager
Book by Neil Simon
Directed and Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
June 4, 2014

Maria Couch, Seth Rettberg Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Maria Couch, Seth Rettberg
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

My earliest memories of They’re Playing Our Song involve the ubiquitous television commercials for the national tour in the early 1980’s. First produced on Broadway in 1979, this show was a very popular and much-hyped touring staple. Nowadays, although the show has been revived a few times, it is very much tied to its time. In its music, situations and sensibilities, it’s a 1970’s show through and through. STAGES St. Louis, in the first main stage production of their 2014 season, has wisely chosen not to try updating the show’s setting, presenting what is, for the most part,  a sweet and very period-specific romantic comedy with an appealing cast and a clear sense of time and place.

Inspired by the real-life romantic and professional relationship of composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, They’re Playing Our Song presents a series of  significant moments in the lives of an Oscar-winning composer, the professionally competent but romantically unlucky Vernon Gersch (Seth Rettberg) and his new lyricist Sonia Walsk (Maria Couch), an offbeat and chronically late free spirit who likes to wear recycled theatrical costumes and has a somewhat unhealthy attachment to her unseen but much talked about slacker ex-boyfriend Leon. The more conventional Vernon and the unpredictable Sonia soon forge an uneasy bond, learning to work together and trying to manage a burgeoning romantic connection in the midst of various personality conflicts and situational difficulties.  There are a lot of jokes about analysts, New York life, show business, sex and the male vs. female expectations in relationships as the two navigate their on-again, off-again relationship.

If this sounds like a Neil Simon plot, that’s because it is.  Simon wrote the script, and it plays out like a fairly typical offbeat 197o’s romantic comedy.  The characters are neurotic and quirky, and the  jokes are witty and fast-moving, although some of them don’t land quite as well as they probably did once upon a time.    Although the show involves the  interesting conceit of employing a sort “Greek Chorus” of alter egos for Sonia (Brittany Rose Hammond, Sarah Rolleston, Bronwyn Taboton) and Vernon (Craig Blake, Nic Thompson, Aaron Umsted), the real weight of this production rests on the shoulders of its two leads.  Rettberg and Couch bring a lot of enthusiasm to the stage, and Rettberg especially is able to infuse the somewhat stuffy Vernon with a lot of deadpan wit and goofy charm.  His voice is strong, especially on “Fallin'” at the beginning of the show, and “Fill In the Words” at the end.  Couch does a fine job as Sonia as well, especially in opening scene where all her eccentricities are made known, and in the later scenes where she starts to show some substance behind all the over-the-top quirkiness.  Her best musical moments are the plaintive “Just For Tonight” and her duets with Vernon, such as the upbeat disco-driven “Working It Out” and “They’re Playing Our Song”. Both performers excel in the delightfully cheesy dancing scenes, as well, and their chemistry is good if not exactly electric.  There’s some great support from the alter-egos, as well, and their entrances from basically everywhere (from inside wardrobe, behind curtains,from behind walls, etc.) are hilarious,  even though their role often comes across as more of a running gag than as a truly relevant plot device.

The 70’s atmosphere of this production is very well realized, even if sometimes I wish they had hammed it up even more. Director/Choreographer Stephen Bourneuf’s fun, disco-influenced dance numbers are a real highlight.  The set, by James Wolk, is colorful and clever, with a stage surrounded by a giant piano keyboard and individual sets (especially Sonia’s rummage-sale special of an apartment) that add to the whimsical nature of the show, and Matthew McCarthy’s lighting design adds to the mood as well with some great effects, especially in illuminating the giant piano keys and in the disco-style lighting of the night club scene.  Lou Bird’s costumes are another real strength of this production, particularly in Sonia’s outfits that range from thrift-store chic to “best of the 7o’s” fashion (a striped wrap-around top, an orange turtleneck, a shimmery red disco dress).  Vernon’s well-coordinated suits accurately reflect his character, as well. This was a very colorful period in American fashion and culture, and that is reflected very well in the overall look and feel of this production.

They’re Playing Our Song is musical that definitely shows its age, although there is much to like in STAGES’ production.  Ultimately, I would say that this is a production that majors on charm and energy, with a sweetly cheesy 70s vibe. Although I do wonder how it will be received by audience members who don’t remember this time period, for the most part I think it’s a time trip worth taking.

Cast of They're Playing Our Song Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of They’re Playing Our Song
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

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