Two films get makeovers for Broadway

'The Graduate,' 'Sweet Smell of Success' debut on stage

The reworking of cultural icons from the past has been a common practice in theater, from long before Shakespeare picked his way through ancient myths and history for his plots to the recenttransformation of the 1967 cult film "The Producers" into a wildly successful New York stage hit.

So it's no surprise that two more movie makeovers have gone onstage at Broadway theaters with another, based on the 1967 film "Thoroughly Modern Millie," now in previews.

"Sweet Smell of Success," based on the 1957 film, opened as a musical last month, reworked by a creative team with impressive credits. And the theatrical presentation of the 1967 film The Graduate, which debuted in London two years ago, has been adapted by Terry Johnson from the novel by Charles Webb and screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry.

"The Graduate" broke box-office records in Britain, followed by an equally successful Toronto-Baltimore-Boston tour before landing at New York's Plymouth Theatre, where it opened last night.

The story examines the complications that arise when a young college grad becomes involved with a married woman and her daughter. As seen in Boston before its final move to New York, "The Graduate" on stage is less about Benjamin's dilemma of what to do with his life than about the shenanigans of Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father's best friend.

Kathleen Turner is unforgettable in the role, for more reasons than the hype about her various states of dress and undress. Turner strides the stage as if she's the only one on it, making Mrs. Robinson into a larger-than-life re-creation of the bored-silly, stay-at-home wife.

With her growly laugh, her stand-up comic's sense of timing, and the way she frames herself in a doorway, she's a scene-stealer in the tradition of Tallulah Bankhead, whom she portrayed recently in a one-woman play.

The graduate, played by Jason Biggs, best known as Jim in the movie "American Pie," and Mrs. Robinson's daughter, played by Alicia Silverstone ("Clueless"), underline the jokes rather than the confusion of approaching adulthood. Victor Slezak is funny as Mr. Robinson, but there's not much help from the script for character exploration.

Don't look here for any subtlety in the relationships or thoughtful probing of the pain of growing up. Above all, do not expect the punch of seeing the film for the first time, with its skewering of the hypocrisy in postwar America.

"The Graduate" provides a fast-moving evening of theater, enhanced by Turner's savvy performance, but there's not much meaning beyond the laughs.

Sweet Smell of Success faces a more difficult problem: turning the Clifford Odets–Ernest Lehman movie script about night stalkers into a musical that mixes the images of the mean New York streets and people with dialogue, lyrics, music, and dance as seen against the Manhattan skyline.

Director Nicholas Hytner, composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Craig Carnelia, playwright John Guare, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, and set designer Bob Crowley captured the look of the city and its tempos by mounting a fast-paced show, but somehow they've failed to make the shadows dark enough.

The musical is dominated by the character J.J. Hunsecker (John Lithgow), a powerful gossip columnist who creates celebrities and ruins lives with his poison pen. But it's hardly possible to watch Lithgow glowering without remembering Burt Lancaster in the film role, not to mention Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, the ever-climbing press agent at his side.

Like a modern version of a Greek chorus, a troupe of 16 actor-singer-dancers in trench coats backs Lithgow and Brian d'Arcy Jones, who plays Falco.

Lithgow is a charmer, but perhaps that's part of the problem. He intends for us to believe J.J. has a soul that diminishes the venal nature of the man – based on Walter Winchell, the powerful Daily Mirror columnist who prowled for copy in the nightclubs where powerful people came to play.

Hamlisch's score leaves the mind soon after the viewer leaves the theater, except for "Dirt," the big number of Act II.

Overall, "Sweet Smell of Success" is an ambitious, entertaining musical, but it fails to provide a compelling reason for translating the film to the stage.

Meanwhile, the Broadway revival of the Richard Rodgers' and Oscar Hammerstein's landmark musical Oklahoma!, directed by Briton Trevor Nunn, is as large as the Western landscape, and offers a patriotic tug to the heartstrings.

Despite talk of rethinking the material, and the choice of Susan Stroman to replace the classic choreography by Agnes de Mille with new dances, the show seems only a little different from the original. Laurey has been turned into a tomgirl, who dances her role in the dream ballet at the Act I finale, instead of having a ballerina stand-in.

But Stroman sticks closely to de Mille's storytelling, finding only a new climax to the dream ballet and making "The Farmer and The Cowman" into a more dynamic dance piece. She combines a canny mix of various styles of American vernacular dance to allow the number to convey its message about the sense of community that ultimately settled the West. The Rodgers and Hammerstein songs are gloriously sung in a production that's a pristine example of American musical staging.

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