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With The Sweet Smell of Success, New Line again gives new luster to an old musical 

click to enlarge J.J. (Zachary Allen Farmer) loves his sister Susan (Ann Hier). Maybe too much, and too deeply.


J.J. (Zachary Allen Farmer) loves his sister Susan (Ann Hier). Maybe too much, and too deeply.

Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor, the artistic directors of New Line Theatre, have some sort of prophetic gift for selecting timely shows. The duo's pick for the third show of New Line's 26th season is The Sweet Smell of Success, a Broadway also-ran in 2002. It's a jazz musical inspired by the career arc of 1950s gossip-monger Walter Winchell — and came across as old-fashioned to the point of quaintness fifteen years ago.

But now, in Miller and Dowdy-Windsor's hands, The Sweet Smell of Success is a string of firecrackers that detonates at dangerously close range. It's dark, it's dirty and it somehow tricks you into believing in the petty dreams of an ambitious scumbag, at least for a little while. And the best part? While those little explosions are still ringing in your ears, you realize exactly how you were duped — and your own complicity in the game Sidney and J.J. play with other people's lives.

Our hero is Sidney Falcone (Matt Pentecost), a struggling PR flack who represents an underperforming nightclub. He's promised the owner he can get the club a positive mention in J.J. Hunsecker's newspaper column, which is read by 60 million people. Sidney has no real plan for doing so other than calling in endless fake tips to J.J.'s secretary, and maybe persuading the beautiful starlet at the other end of the bar to sign on as a client with the immortal bad advice, "Smile — that's the first rule for a chick."

What he lacks in brains, Sidney makes up for with luck: That starlet is J.J.'s sister Susan (Ann Hier), and the gossip columnist shows up in person to bring her back home. Susan is there to see her secret lover, the club's piano player, Dallas (Sean Michael). She convinces Sidney to back up her cover story when J.J. (Zachary Allen Farmer) wonders why she's in such a rundown place, and just like that, Sidney has an in. Of course, Sidney knowingly lied to acquire that point of entry. The lie will build up to the point that it eventually crushes Sidney between J.J. and the truth.

click to enlarge Sidney (Matt Pentecost) wants to be like J.J. (Zachary Allen Farmer). Big mistake. - JILL RITTER LINDBERG
  • Sidney (Matt Pentecost) wants to be like J.J. (Zachary Allen Farmer). Big mistake.
Matt Pentecost plays Sidney as a single-minded social climber with a constant, easy smile. Pentecost has a soaring, heroic voice, but Sidney is no hero. His dream is to be J.J., and the more you learn about J.J., the more you realize Sidney's moral barometer is seriously damaged.

Zachary Allen Farmer uses every inch of his imposing frame to dominate his scenes, and he makes J.J.'s love for his much-younger sister feel cloying and unwholesome. During his solo number, "For Susan," he sings of every gift he's given her, as if their sibling relationship has been nothing but a long courtship. Ann Hier turns in on herself during the song, embarrassment and fear in her eyes.

It's no surprise, then, that when J.J. discovers Susan and Dallas' relationship, he turns on Sidney with murder in his balled fists and drops his voice down to a gravelly whisper. (It might be too low; there were several complaints at intermission about not being able to hear him at this point.) But like the schmuck he is, Sidney figures out a new lie and starts a conspiracy with J.J. to break up the two lovers — because how could anybody's happiness outweigh Sidney's ambitions?

Of course this all ends horribly for all involved. Our protagonist would, and does, prostitute his girlfriend to get an edge, the most powerful man in New York has an unnatural romantic attachment to a blood relative and the only thing that really matters to either of them is hot gossip. The only saving grace is that J.J. isn't on Twitter.

Well, that and the score by Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Camellia. Hamlisch has a gift for accurately recreating the sound of bygone eras, and The Sweet Smell of Success comes with beautiful sounds. His pre-bop jazz tunes have a convincing and propulsive swing, and his love song "I Cannot Hear the City" is a lush pocket symphony that should have been a hit in any era (Sean Michael sings the hell out of it). Musical director Jeffrey Richard Carter makes the show positively sweat the grime of New York's nocturnal underbelly.

And as the show sweeps along, the seaminess of it all pulls you in. J.J.'s lavish lifestyle and the endless streams of gossip he wades through satisfy our baser urges. Our American fascination with wealth and the personal lives of celebrities seem harmless; famous people know what they're signing up for. But when J.J. steps over a dead celebrity while singing "Don't Look Now," the scales fall from your eyes. All the gossip, lies and self-aggrandizement can no longer mask the merciless venality of a little man with a big mouth.

Even a self-centered moron like Sidney can see clearly by that point.

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