"Sweet Smell of Success," the Broadway-bound new tuner trying out in Chicago, has a bit of an identity problem: Is it a Faustian morality fable about the dangers of power and incestuous sexual desire?

“Sweet Smell of Success,” the Broadway-bound new tuner trying out in Chicago, has a bit of an identity problem: Is it a Faustian morality fable about the dangers of power and incestuous sexual desire? A lightly satirical stage spoof of ink-stained hacks and whiny flacks? Or a romantic vehicle for the songs of Marvin Hamlisch — a composer whose gorgeous melodies evoke not Kander-and-Ebb cynicism but human vulnerability? Between now and the Broadway opening, director Nicholas Hytner and the other multitalented parties involved had better all get on the same conceptual page, or what’s left of the gossip column fraternity will have a lot to chew on.

The remarkable Bob Crowley has contributed a stunning design, a whimsical but nonetheless classic (and movable) Gotham skyline, which Natasha Katz illuminates with seemingly endless variety. Newspapers roll from presses in the sky, neon bathes the stage and beautifully realized New York niteries slide on and off the stage of Chi’s Shubert Theatre with delicious style.

There are also several fabulous numbers (Craig Carnelia’s poetic lyrics are one of this show’s greatest strengths), all sung with full-throated exuberance by Brian d’Arcy James, Kelli O’Hara and, especially, Jack Noseworthy. These fine young players potentially have what it takes, as does energetic star John Lithgow, who does a reasonable job of faking the singing, and also has sufficient presence and panache to turn Broadway powerbroker J.J. Hunsecker into a genuinely intimidating period gossipmeister.

Lithgow perhaps will never be as Roy Cohn-ish as the role ideally demands, but he could work very nicely, too, assuming he is able to invest his character with some necessary vulnerability. When Hunsecker talks about the loneliness of the long-distance gossip, we need to read his pain. Only then will we care about keeping him company.

But John Guare’s sardonic book is shot through with the kind of problems that can sink an otherwise impressive show. Some of these things could be fixed relatively easily — the piece badly needs more inventive, sophisticated humor, and some of the juvenile and cliched lines (on the order of “You guys have more twists than a bag of pretzels”) could hit the cutting-room floor. Since Carnelia offers lush, urban poetry in the lyrics and Hamlisch emotional weight in the music, Guare badly needs to turn up the style thermostat in the cruder spoken sections.

More crucially, the show needs to strengthen the emotional arcs for at least two of its main characters, and ultimately to decide whom it really belongs to.

After establishing the prominence of Hunsecker well beyond credibility (New York talks and sing about no one else all day long, it seems, and there are no other gossip columnists until the narrative suddenly needs one), the show moves on to two parallel plots. One involves a power-hungry flack named Sidney Falco (d’Arcy James) who’s desperate to get in Hunsecker’s star-making column. The other focuses on Susan (O’Hara), Hunsecker’s (much) younger sister, who wants to shake off her brother’s patronizing shackles and forge a romance with a handsome piano crooner named Dallas Cochran (Noseworthy).

The twin narratives combine when Hunsecker turns Falco into his fawning protege (why is never fully explained) and uses him to bust up the romance between the saloon singer and the sister — the twisted sonofabitch wants to keep little sis all to himself.

In the early sections of the tuner, it seems Falco is our entree into the show, and the main theme will be whether he’ll betray principles and friends for influence. D’Arcy James excites the house with edgy numbers like “At the Fountain.” But well before the end of the night, Falco seems to turn entirely sleazy, and the show turns its attention solely to Susan’s need for independence. (Even though she all but accuses her bro of incestuous desire, poor old Hunsecker barely gets to respond before shipping off to England on the Queen Mary.)

As is sometimes the case when movies with complex narratives are turned into musicals, hard choices of focus have not been made here. In the second act, things become increasingly scattered, and by the time the climax arrives, the show’s irresolution had dissipated the audience’s initial warmth and involvement.

Along the way, there are some splendid and eminently hummable Hamlisch ditties (the score has real depth and variety). And Christopher Wheeldon — an up-and-coming ballet choreographer here making his Broadway debut — has created some lovely movement, even if it does not have much in common with other stylistic choices.

Then again, there are as many styles on display here as there are bits in a Hunsecker column. Tasting success will require finding one lead item — and sticking with it all night.

Sweet Smell of Success

Shubert Theater; 1,800 seats; $77.50 top

Production

A Clear Channel Entertainment, David Brown, Ernest Lehman, Marty Bell, Martin Richards, Roy Furman, Joan Cullman, Bob Boyett, East of Doheny and Bob and Harvey Weinstein presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Craig Carnelia and book by John Guare. Based on the novella by Ernest Lehman and the MGM/United Artists film. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon.

Creative

Sets, costumes, Bob Crowley; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Tony Meola; orchestrations, William David Brohn; musical direction, Jeffrey Huard. Production stage manager, Richard Hester. Opened, reviewed Jan. 13, 2002. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast

Hunsecker - John Lithgow
Sidney Falco - Brian d'Arcy James
Susan Hunsecker - Kelli O'Hara
Dallas - Jack Noseworthy
Rita O'Rourke - Stacey Logan
With: Mark Arvin, David Brummel, Jamie Chandler-Torns, Kate Coffman-Logan, Bernard Dotson, Allen Fitzpatrick, Jennie Ford, Lisa Gajda, Eric Michael Gillett, Laura Griffith, Joanna Glushak, Roy Harcourt, Michelle Kittrell, Jill Nicklaus, Steve Ochoa, Michael Paternostro, Eric Sciotto, Elena L. Shaddow, Drew Taylor, Frank Vlastnik.

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