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Flash Review 2, 4-1: Broadway Dance Beat
Wheeldon's (Bitter) Sweet Whiff of Success

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2002 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- First things first: "Sweet Smell of Success," now playing at the Martin Beck Theater, is not nearly as bad as previous reviews indicate. It has not succeeded in the same sense that an Olympic figure skater can blow a gold medal with a fall and a couple of bad edges. With its perfect pedigree -- book by John Guare, music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Craig Carnelia, direction by Nicholas Hytner, choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, and starring John Lithgow -- the production was nearly fated to launch into orbit with an open-ended run or serve as a punching bag for "The Producers"-fawning backlash. Regardless, it's still an entertaining smaller-scale Broadway show about a refreshingly unsentimental, urban subject.

Unfortunately for us dance fans, movement came across as an afterthought. Wheeldon, whose choreography is one of the best reasons to see New York City Ballet these days, was hindered by a small performing area, not to mention a daunting roster of collaborators. The movement called to mind the sensibility of Jerome Robbins -- caffeinated, jazzified ballet, performed at full throttle. The relatively small ensemble, while clearly technically accomplished in dance, seemed to grapple with some of Wheeldon's rapid shifts and segues, which at times felt like patches rather than part of a continuum. And moves that probably were dramatic in concept, as when a man would support his hinging partner as she scurried across the stage, came across as ungainly. There were some pleasing interweavings of ensemble lines, and swooning movements en masse, but the dance failed to make a memorable imprint.

None of the leads, with the exception of Lithgow, were required to perform any memorable feats of dance. The cast is peopled with extremely talented singing leads and a powerful dancing chorus. Bryan d'Arcy James, as scrappy young publicist Sidney, used his healthy pipes at the service of his character's unlimited ambition. Hunsecker's little sis, Susan, was portrayed by Kelli O'Hara, whose naturalism crossed from welcome to bland. And her verboten inamorata, a bohemian jazzman, was played by Jack Noseworthy, whose slight physique was shrouded in anachronistic Gap clothes.

John Lithgow can neither sing nor dance remarkably well. But his considerable acting skills, paired with his malleable face, were priceless for conveying the crafty, shifting thoughts of gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker. Lithgow soldiered through a late Vaudeville number in which the ensemble worked dutifully to not upstage the "Third Rock from the Sun" star. If the show runs long enough to merit replacing its leads, this number could surely sparkle in the hands of a better dancer.

The set, by Bob Crowley (who also designed the gorgeous, vampy costumes) evoked a Gothamesque New York City, like walking through Central Park at night, at once surrounded by the city and yet at an untouchable distance. Otherwise, the settings were largely nightclubs and speakeasies, providing ample reason for dance numbers that never really caught fire.

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