New Line Theatre's SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS Is Disturbingly Brilliant

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New Line Theater's SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS run Jun 1 - 24

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is a musical by Marvin Hamlisch, Craig Camelia and John Guare based on the screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman about a post WWII celebrity gossip columnist, his seedy protégé and the muckraker’s strange relationship with his sister. It’s one of the more intricately structured plots you’ll see in a musical. Virtually no one is quite who you thought they were by the end of the show and that level of character depth is deeply satisfying. It’s also likely that you’ll squirm in your seat uncomfortably at times, because Zachary Allen Farmer, one of St. Louis’ best comedic actors, plays one hell of a rat bastard in this New Line Theatre production.

​J.J. Hunsecker (based in part on real-life celebrity gossip scribe Walter Winchell, and played as the aforementioned rat bastard by Mr. Farmer), has his fZachary Allen Farmer as J.J. Hunsecker and Ann Hier as Susan Hunsecker in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS Photo Credit Jill Ritter Lindberg.inger on the pulse of America and his thumb in the throat of anyone who dares oppose him. Making his rounds of the best see-and-be-seen clubs in New York, he soon encounters Sidney Falco (Matt Pentecost), who has way more ambition than moral fiber. J.J. takes this would be king of the dirtsheets under his wing, but also uses him to keep tabs on his beloved sister Susan (Ann Heir, finally in a feature role at New Line). Susan has become increasingly troubled by her brother’s affection, and wants to runaway with up and coming jazz musician Dallas Cochran (Sean Michael). Thus begins an intricate web of lies and deceit, traps set and sprung, all building to some plot twists and character turns I happily did not see coming.

I’ve covered New Line’s show for a long time, and co-directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor do two things exceptionally well: find great material that may be better suited for their black box theatre at The Marcelle than the glitzy, over-produced attempts on Broadway, and cast some the best and brightest up and coming actors in the St. Louis area to perform it. Sean Michael looked looser and more relaxed on stage than I’ve ever seen him and his singing voice rang out sharp and clear. His song “One Track Mind” might be my favorite song in the whole show. Zachary Allen Farmer, wowed audiences in late September 2016 with his Orson Welles/Dom DeLuise/Jackie Gleeson/Marlon Brando bigger-than-life character Rich in CELEBRATION. Where Rich was merely a bored man who has everything, J.J. Hunsecker is at best a bully and at worse…well, he’s real rat bastard! I love Zachary Farmer, but I despised J.J. Hunsecker. I mean, there’s bad guys in almost every show in some way or another, but there’s an extra layer of deeply disturbing perversion to Hunsecker that takes him from pompous blackmailer to evil creep.

Matt Pentecost did a fine job as the lead in New Line’s production of BONNIE AND CLYDE a couple of seasons ago, but he set the bar much higher after this powerhouse performance as Sidney Falco. There are a lot of dark edges on his character. Falco is repeatedly asked. both implicitly and metaphorically, just how far he is willing to go to get what he wants, which is, of course, to eventually take over for Hunsecker himself. He answers that question time and again that he’s willing to go pretty darn for, morality be damned.  Eventually, he realizes even he has a limit to his own depravity. Matt exhibited this broad range of emotional choices with complete conviction throughout the performance. He’s got this Leonardo DiCaprio quality about him, where he just naturally inhabits the role. He has a dynamic voice, great facial expressions; a total package turning in a top-notch performance. Last but not least, Ann Hier is sensational as Susan Hunsecker, suffocating under the oppressive obsession of her brother. Ann has graced the New Line stage many times, but this is one of the first times I can recall her playing a lead role. She has great chemistry with Sean, Matt and Zachary, particular the latter who she played the wife of in ATOMIC. She has an operatic range, but can sing the lust lower octavies well too, and she paired perfectly with both Sean Michael on “Don’t Know Where You Leave Off” and Matt Pentecost on “What If.” Like Matt, she conveys a tremendous depth of emotion with her facial expressions. It’s almost physically painful to watch her sink into herself, cowering in fear of her brother’s presence. I almost allowed myself to get caught up in a moment where J.J. is particularly debauched—you’ll know it when you see it. For a second my chivalrous side coiled for action: sweep Hunsecker’s leg, save Susan, run like hell before Scott Miller can catch me! Fortunately I was able to stop myself from rushing the stage, but I was so completely absorbed by the intricacies of the plot, and the twisted nature of the characters that I had perhaps suspended my disbelief a little too much! When the acting in any show is so good you forget you’re merely observing the show and aren’t actually in it, they’ve got you. The entire cast of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS got me big time.

Matt Pentecost and Zachary Allen Farmer in New Line Theatre's SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, through June 24. Photo Credit: Jill Ritter LindbergThe music is jazzy, but I wouldn’t think particularly easy for the always excellent New Line Band: Jeffrey Richard Carter conducting Kaela Barnett, Sue Goldford, Steven Johnson, Clancy Newell and Jake Stergos. There seemed to be a lot of starts, sudden breaks, key changes—the music was almost a speaking part in and of itself. It set the tone, along with Rob Lippert’s noir-inspired set and Sarah Porter’s blue-tinged costumes. The ensemble of Jason Blackburn, Mara Bollini, Kent Coffel, Alison Helmer (now that Ann has had a lead role, Alison’s next on my wish list), William Pendergast, Michelle Sauer, Christopher Strawhun and Sara Rae Womack doesn’t disappoint and pulls off some delightful dance numbers choreographed by New Line veteran Taylor Pietz. I don’t want to overlook the contributions of Kimi Short, prop master and comic relief to J.J. Hunsecker, and Sarah porter, who not only handled wardrobe but gets pimped out by her boyfriend Sidney, leading to an excellent solo with “Rita’s Tune.”

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, which runs from June 1 – 24, 2017 at The Marcelle Theater, is tremendously entertaining. The plot is intricate without being difficult to follow, the songs are memorable, and the acting is top notch. Zachary Allen Farmer makes J.J. Hunsecker such a loathsome rat bastard that you may be uncomfortable for a few days after, but discovering for yourself who the real hero of this story is makes being skeeved out for a day or two totally worth it. Visit www.NewLineTheatre for more about SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS and other upcoming productions including Anything Goes and Yeast Nation.