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Review Round-up: Did critics enjoy the Sweet Smell of Success?

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Marvin Hamlisch's 2002 musical Sweet Smell of Success opened at the Arcola Theatre last night (14 November 2012).

Based on the 1957 film of the same name, Sweet Smell of Success centres on the dealings of powerful Broadway gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker, who uses his considerable influence to scupper his sister's relationship with an 'unsuitable' man.

Starring David Bamber, Adrian der Gregorian, Caroline Keiff, Stuart Matthew Price and Celia Graham, Sweet Smell of Success runs at the Arcola Theatre until 22 December 2012.

Michael Coveney

…smouldering British premiere of this sour and savage Broadway musical…Mehmet Ergen’s production does not disappoint, creating a steamy noir atmosphere with the help of a savvy band on a rostrum (musical direction by Bob Broad), snappy and inventive choreography by Nathan M Wright and great black and white design by Mark Bailey…this score has no sweeteners at all, not even in the love ballads, and it absolutely bristles (with sharp lyrics by Craig Carnelia) at the great set-pieces…Bamber, perhaps a little too short and clerical for Hunsecker, nonetheless manages to convey his sheer oily nastiness, and his semi-incestuous obsession with Susan…Der Gregorian and Keiff seem to me genuinely exciting new musical theatre names, and the chorus sings and sidles up a storm. Sound levels are good, too, for once, in a fringe blast-off. A real treat.

Fiona Mountford
Evening Standard
…Mehmet Ergen offers this Tony Award-nominated piece a slick, polished UK premiere, the stand-out aspect of which is the sparkling ensemble choreography (take a twirl, Nathan M Wright). So good are the group numbers, with performers popping up in subways or bars, that they start to overshadow the man with the power to make or break careers overnight. Bamber could usefully point the unknowable Hunsecker into sharper definition, although admittedly John Guare’s book gives scant help. The pace flags at times and the denouement doesn’t pack the punch it should. Still, imagine a time when one column could be read by 60 million people.

Dominic Cavendish
Daily Telegraph

…this is a compelling evening, brilliantly staged by the Arcola’s artistic director Mehmet Ergen, with compact choreography by Nathan M Wright…The jazzy pulse of the score (with lyrics by Craig Carnelia), and the frenetic, knotty pace of the plot (book by John Guare) are snappily and stylishly served by a bustling company of 16…Adrian der Gregorian may not have Curtis’s looks but he absolutely draws you into the wannabe hotshot’s grasping mindset and his increasingly sweaty dilemmas. Watch out too for Celia Graham, sensational as his girlfriend Rita – sacrificed on the altar of his Faustian ambition. The costumes are pure Mad Men but it’s the madness – and badness – of men who weigh human worth in column inches alone that’s the show’s hypnotic central attraction.

Libby Purves
The Times

…The score is often unsubtly repetitive, and only three or four of the songs stay in the memory, but the claustrophobic setting and overhead band help to give a real diabolic edge to a dark story. So does the central performance of David Bamber as J J: a wrinkled, poisonous little bundle of spiteful self-regard…As Falco, Adrian der Gregorian traces a subtle, melodious route from ambitious duffer to dazzled acolyte and finally fellow demon…Sweet Smell of Success doesn’t stand with the great musicals, but Ergen gives it an energy that holds you rapt, and Celia Graham as Rita the cigarette-girl, pimped for a favour by Falco, is show-stealingly good: hard and wistful together. And though the final conflation of straw-hat vaudeville and brutality makes you long for Kander and Ebb, it is pleasingly nasty.

Stewart Pringle

Marvin Hamlisch's fiery Broadway noir musical finally makes its London premiere in a production that flaunts a smart and edgy razzle-dazzle cut with murky violence…The cast is first-rate, particularly Bamber as the godfather of gossip with a wincingly creepy obsession with his young sister Susan (a superb Caroline Keiff). It's this undercurrent of darkness that really sets Sweet Smell of Success aside…The band is cooking and Hamlisch's music tumbles forward on a relentless beat, backed by Nathan M Wright's pinpoint choreography. Craig Carnelia's incisive lyrics are a perfect fit, as cool and as dynamic as Hamlisch's jazz-inflected score. Mehmet Ergen's production is a bold and booming musical storm that feels fit to burst right out of the Arcola and onto the West End.

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