When the 1957 film "Sweet Smell of Success," starring Burt Lancaster as a power-driven newspaper gossip columnist was released, legendary gossip columnist Walter Winchell called rival columnist Louie Sobol to agitate, mistakenly under the impression the movie was all the "dirty laundry" about his fellow ink-stained colleague.
But in fact, this story brought to the big screen was all about Winchell, a fact the newspaperman couldn't recognize because of the weight of his own-swelled ego, which led him to believe he was untouchable.
Marvin Hamlisch opted to adapt the film into a stage musical first unveiled to audiences as a pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago in January 2002 before it moved on to the Great White Way in New York to open March 14, 2002 at the Martin Beck Theatre on Broadway. Starring John Lithgow as J.J. Hunsecker, the gossip columnist modeled after Winchell and Brian d'Arcy James as Sidney Falcone, his leg-man assistant, it closed on June 15, 2002, after 109 performances and 18 previews. I reviewed the new musical for the Chicago launch and was only lukewarm with the production.
More than a decade later, a far better and more intimate incarnation of "The Sweet Smell of Success" has finally returned to the Windy City, and this edition is letter perfect in everything from the casting to the sets to the choreography and the clever touches that entrance audiences into a world of power, the press, celebrities and the dark side to fame and fortune mingled with "the public's right to know."
Chicago non-Equity musical theater company Kokandy Productions, led by Bishop Noll graduate Scot Kokandy and his newly appointed Associate Artistic Director John D. Glover, have created something that shines and is not-to-be-missed, since this is a stage story that doesn't often make it to audiences as a popular project to produce.
Running until Feb. 2 at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont, just a stone's throw from Wrigley Field in Chicago, the story remains set in New York City 1952 with powerhouse Brian Rooney capturing every essence of what the role of JJ Hunsecker should be (and far better than nice-guy Lithgow's turn a decade earlier). Rooney is convincing as a not-to-be trusted newspaper wag who believes his outreach to 60 million readers everyday gives him the right to control everything and anyone within his reach. He obsession with control includes keeping a close, unwelcome watch over his sister Susan, played by Victoria Blade and her blossoming romance with a promising piano player named Dallas, played by Nathan Gardner, who is gifted with golden pipes. But the best of the best notice is reserved for actor David Schlumpf, who shines as press agent Sidney, and gives an stellar performance as a conflicted man bent on success, despite any roadblocks that might attempt to hamper his ambitions. (However, for future performances, Schlumpf HAS to correctly pronounce the last name of legendary newspaperwoman and gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen.)
Steven Spanopoulos achieves some eye-popping and entertaining choreography in what is a very small space, which has been imaginatively transformed by Zach Gipson (who hails from Chesterton) into the heart of New York City with towering skyscrapers cleverly covered (if you look closely) in newspapers and newsprint to create the facades.
Tickets are $38 at (773) 975-8150 or theaterwit.org.