Chicago Theatre Review
The Perfume of Power
Sweet Smell of Success
In 1952 New York City a small-time performer could suddenly become a big name celebrity overnight, thanks to newspaper columnists like JJ Hunsecker. His subtle, enigmatic mention in his column of a venue, an event or an up-and-coming star was akin to someone appearing in today’s National Enquirer, on TV shows like TMZ or sounding off on Twitter. Into Hunsecker’s world comes aspiring young press agent Sidney Falco who hungers for the same power and prestige. When JJ’s pretty younger sister Susan, whom he feels he must protect and shelter, falls in love with Dallas Cochran, a talented but struggling young pianist, Hunsecker promises to help Sidney’s career if he’ll destroy their relationship. JJ’s corrupt influence and control infuses this story of absolute power corrupting absolutely.
After his popularity and accolades in 1975 for “A Chorus Line,” which included the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, composer Marvin Hamlisch found it difficult to top his earlier success. In 2002, working with award-winning professional lyricist Craig Carnelia and playwright John Guare, they together adapted the 1957 noir film classic for the stage. Hamlisch once again found his jazz-infused score nominated for the Tony. But, perhaps because theatre goers were looking for a happier theatrical escape following the tragedy of 9/11, this bitter musical that centers around a power hungry newspaper scandal columnist didn’t as prove as popular. And although the show garnered seven Tony nominations, only John Lithgow earned an award for his portrayal of the Walter Winchell-inspired newspaper man, JJ Hunsecker. And despite its smoke-filled, bluesy score and a hard-working ensemble of singer/dancers, this show hasn’t found its way into into many regional theatres.
Possibly because the play is so dark and most of the characters aren’t very likable, this musical is an acquired taste. Younger audiences may not recognize many of Guare and Canelia’s 1950’s cultural references, but more mature audiences will delight in hearing names like Cary Grant, Pearl Bailey and President Eisenhower thrown about. Not only is the story sinister and somber, but so is the show’s technical support. In director John Glover’s highly energetic production, Zachary Gipson’s versatile cityscape set, moodily lit by Cat Wilson, and costumed in Kate Setzer Kamphausen’s pitch perfect b&w period fashions is a noir film come to life. Aaron Benham’s musical direction is taut and precise, and his five-member backstage combo do Mr. Hamlisch proud. Steven Spanopoulos once again demonstrates why he’s one of Chicago’s top choreographers with his kinetic, inventive dance breaks and stage movement. Indeed, this entire ensemble deserves much credit for keeping this show continually singing and swinging.
David Schlumpf is sensational as Sidney, the “cookie full of arsenic” and the anti-hero of this sinister tale that sizzles with Damon Runyon-like poetic dialogue. This tall, good-looking actor (who impressed as Clifford Bradshaw in Light Opera Works‘ highly acclaimed production of “Cabaret”) easily takes hold of this difficult role and makes it his. Schlumpf’s beautiful, easy bari-tenor soars through all his numbers, especially in his ode to ambition, “At the Fountain.” He’s as easy playing the desperate wheeler-dealer as the betrayed, revengeful victim. Brian Rooney is pure evil and contempt as JJ Hunsecker and a powerful, impenetrable nemesis to Schlumpf’s Sidney. Lovely Victoria Blade and handsome Nathan Gardner bring charm, beautiful voices and honesty to their portrayals of Susan and Dallas, the only characters for whom the audience really cares. Gardner’s beautiful renditions of “I Cannot Hear the City” and “Don’t Know Where You Leave Off” are pure Hamlisch classics in their hands. Christina Hall shines as Sidney’s sexy girlfriend-with-a-past and turns up the moxie in her sultry, “Rita’s Tune.”
This seldom-seen musical, that had its pre-Broadway premier in Chicago more than ten years ago, is worth seeing for many reasons. It boasts a terrific cast, dynamically directed and choreographed by professionals who know what they’re doing and offers the opportunity to hear the late Marvin Hamlisch’s wonderfully moody, jazz-inspired score. It also tells an uncommon story for musical theatre illustrating the ease with which power can seduce and the resulting pain and penance that follows. This is a production that should not be missed and the way to start off the New Year with a bang.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 10-February 2 by Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Theater Wit box office, by calling 773-975-8150 or by visiting their website at https://www.theaterwit.org/boxoffice
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com