I’ve been impressed with quite a few local shows this season. We have certainly been blessed with some solid productions around here lately. But by far Sweet Smell of Success, the musical that’s just opened at Circle Theatre, is the one that really blew me away. If you want to witness searing performances, vivid artistic and technical direction, and creative choreography, don’t miss this one. It’s also fascinating that the characters are based upon actual people.

If you’re a fan of film noir, you may already know the bleakly cynical 1957 movie about the dark side of show business starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Perhaps too bitter for the ’50s, the picture was a box office disaster in its initial release. But the film has aged gracefully, especially as the noir movie genre enjoyed a revival of popularity in the last decade.

In 2002 the musical version, with John Guare’s book and Marvin Hamlisch’s score, opened on Broadway. Though the production closed after only a hundred or so performances, John Lithgow garnered a Tony in the Lancaster role, as a powerful Manhattan gossip columnist, based upon Walter Winchell.

If you’re looking for Brigadoon or Camelot, this is not the show for you. This musical won’t make you whistle your way up the aisle. The songs are as sharp, biting, and relentless as the nasty characters who sing them. Yet there’s great energy and attitude. Tautly directed by Kevin Bellie, Sweet Smell has electric performances and a classy, sophisticated look.

Walter Winchell, now virtually forgotten, was a tyrannical show biz columnist who used his power to discipline or destroy those he felt needed it. During the periodic “circulation wars” of the big daily newspapers, desperate editors allowed innuendo and often downright fabrication to seep into print if it could snare a bump in readership. Jon Steinhagen is chillingly credible as arrogant J.J. Hunsecker who has the power to make or break people. He’s a right-wing showbiz columnist who believes himself to be Broadway’s avenging angel. This tyrant, treating everyone like servants, never steps down from his throne. He’s also got a warped, uncomfortably close bond with his kid sister (Katrina Kuntz).

Steinhagen, well known as a composer, is clearly adept at singing and acting, too. He strongly conveys a sense of J.J.’s menace and malice, commanding every scene he’s in. His ice-cold gaze through his fish-eye glasses is pretty creepy. There’s also a certain pathetic quality about him, making J.J. a kind of McCarthy-era Charles Foster Kane. You wonder what his parents were like, to have raised such a ruthless, heartless mess.

I have observed Steinhagen’s work since he was an adolescent. His performance as J.J. Hunsecker is nothing short of astonishing.

As Sidney Falco, the Tony Curtis role, Michael Mahler is also impressive as a two-bit, success-starved publicity agent who would sell his grandmother to get publicity for his clients. Forever scheming and plotting, slimy Falco moves from wanting to be near his idol, J.J. Hunsecker, to actually wanting to be J.J. Hunsecker. Mahler is adept at seeming both sleazy and boyishly charming at the same time.

Recognizing he’s just as power-hungry and unprincipled, Hunsecker enlists Falco’s aid in planting fictitious slurs in the newspaper to ruin the reputation of a jazz singer (Scott Allen Luke) who’s romantically involved with the columnist’s sister, Susan. But she’s finally had enough of her possessive brother running her life. Will she break free?

As the two lovers, Luke and Kuntz are good-looking and sing well, but they’re rather vaguely delineated. Certainly this is purposeful, so these characters won’t pull focus from J.J. and Sidney?#34;the snake charmer and his coiled cobra.

The real-life story was that it was not really Walter Winchell’s sister he was so possessively attached to. He used his column to destroy the man who wanted to marry his daughter, Walda. (How’s her name grab you as an indicator of her daddy’s ego?)

The songs are not often distinctive, but Darci Nalepa as Sidney’s wronged girlfriend, a nightclub cigarette girl, makes a big impact with “Rita’s Tune.”

Kelly Schumann is the assistant who does much of the legwork for J.J.’s column. Scott Stangland is a corrupt, sadistic NYPD detective.

The midtown Manhattan club district of the ’50s is brilliantly recreated by Bob Knuth’s set, which makes you feel you are actually in the swank but smoky nightclubs of the foreboding noir world. Several large scrims are used to project crisp black-and-white images, such as Times Square or the Hudson River. This has the effect of creating a sleek, nocturnal world while also saluting the silky black-and-white cinematography of James Wong Howe in the 1957 film. There’s even a large window-like screen in the middle of the set through which we can see the musicians performing.

Jeffrey Kelly’s period-perfect costuming smartly recreates the era when everyone wore hats, ladies always wore gloves, even in the summer, and young women who looked like showgirls hawked cigarettes table to table. Christopher Ash’s lighting design effectively gives the proper gray blue tone to many scenes, again in keeping with the vintage “silver screen” look.

You don’t have to be older to catch the allusions that pepper the dialogue but it helps. Younger audience members may not know who folks like Prince Rainier of Monaco, Lena Horne, Joe DiMaggio, Adlai Stevenson, or Tallulah Bankhead were. But they’ll get the idea that big names are being dropped.

Peter J. Storms is musical director. Steve Cothard is stage manager.

Sweet Smell of Success

Circle Theatre, 7300 W. Madison St
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through 6/25, with 8 p.m. Thursday shows on 6/8, 6/15 and 6/22.
$24/$22 seniors and students
Call 771-0700 for reservations

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Doug Deuchler

Doug Deuchler has been reviewing local theater and delving into our history for Wednesday Journal for decades. He is alsoa retired teacher and school librarian who is also a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent...