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The Sweet Smell of Success - Royal Academy of Music

The Sweet Smell of Success, is above all, a comprehensive rebuttal to the assertion that what is printed in newspapers (or, these days, published online), particularly about the movements and actions of celebrity figures in society, is credible. On an entirely separate note, there have been concerns from fellow reviewers who have been around the block a few times more than yours truly about musical theatre training courses not teaching students how to sing with clarity and precision in the way they did before. I never really noticed it until catching this summer showcase production, which ran for four days (two days longer than most summer showcases, mind you) at the Royal Academy of Music.

Rita (Natalie Dunne) gets a musical number all to herself, the unimaginatively titled ‘Rita’s Tune’; Dunne can’t help but insert chart music style riffs in a song which shouldn’t have any. Thomas Grant’s Sidney – a young press agent trying to make it big – sings with such variation he is at one point incomparable and at another barely comprehensible, with a strong vibrato that, to be blunt, needs taming. I may well be being harsh on students, but these are people on the cusp of graduating – in the show’s programme, there’s a list of ‘student successes’, people in the class who have secured professional work at the time the programme was printed. The two aforementioned people aren’t on the list. Make of that what you will.

(I do not mean to say that snapping up a job in musical theatre before one has even graduated necessarily makes one a ‘better’ performer than another: there are Olivier Award winners who sometimes find themselves out of work, a similar phenomenon to the ‘Nobel Prize effect’, where winners find that they have fewer commissions for work in their specialised field because there is a perception they are too expensive and/or too busy elsewhere, so potential clients don’t even bother asking about their availability.)

At least the leading man is well and truly a leading man, with decent stage presence and an excellent singing vocal. James Penniston as JJ Hunsecker is both cynical and conniving, willing to say whatever he thinks will sell papers in his gossip column, irrespective of whether any of what he says is true. But these were the days before social media and the proliferation of various news media channels and streams – he claims he has 60 million readers, and his column is powerful enough to make or break a person.

One such person is Dallas (Jeremy Sartori), a piano player in a jazz bar (yep, like Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian Wilder in the romantic comedy motion picture La La Land). He has the privilege of being both made and broken by Hunsecker, the former on account of Sidney’s persistence, the latter on Hunsecker’s over-protectiveness towards his sister Susan (Camille Rieu). It’s an unusual musical, not so much in terms of musicality, which is very much like the other compositions of Marvin Hamlisch (1944-2012), but the plotline was unpredictable – or, rather, less predictable than many a musical.

The choreography sparkled in this production, and there was further fun to be had afterwards in a late night ‘musical theatre cabaret’, though that performance was so short it is almost barely worth mentioning. There were relatively few solo performances: ‘Featuring The Company’ was as much detail as was given for who was singing on seven out of the ten numbers in the show. Hairs stood on end during an acapella rendering of ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ from Walt Disney’s Pinocchio.

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