"Sweet Smell of Success," in its pre-Broadway engagement at the Shubert Theatre, is a most ambitious musical trying to find its balance. Many of the elements of a successful show are in place, but not all of them are in the right place; and, though the production's creators may be on to something big, they haven't yet configured their story or harnessed the richness of their talent into the provocative and exciting piece they're aiming for.

High among their priorities is how to make better use of their star, John Lithgow, and, perhaps in so doing, to get from him a more commanding performance in the leading role of J.J. Hunsecker, a malevolent, egomaniacal New York newspaper gossip columnist of the 1950s.

Lithgow isn't at all like the monstrous soft-voiced, stone-faced Hunsecker portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the 1957 movie on which the musical is based. Like Walter Winchell, whose power, politics and corruption formed the inspiration for Ernest Lehman's original novelette, Lithgow's Hunsecker is an old vaudevillian, a hoofer of energy and wit with a savage sense of humor. If anything, he's a little too laid back, a little too pathetic, not mean enough.

He's the first person we see on stage, as he dictates items to his secretary, but thereafter, we lose track of him until a few scenes later, when he wanders into the storyline and picks up his fawning toady, Sidney Falco, the desperately ambitious press agent who lives and dies by J.J.'s whims.

Then, and only then, in the first of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's dynamic rounds of dance, as the two men swirl through a tour of Manhattan smoke and neon, does Hunsecker's character begin to be defined. When Sidney is a tad late in lighting J.J.'s cigarette, the breezy but ominous warning comes, "Next time, be quicker."

With his smile turning into a scowl, with his charm freezing into menace, Lithgow shows that he can handle the complexities of the role; but too often he's put into the background while the show focuses on the songs and story involving the young lovers, Hunsecker's too beloved young sister Susan and her nightclub musician boyfriend. Kelli O'Hara and Jack Noseworthy are attractive enough in these roles, but they've been given far too much stage time, and they can't carry the show.

Lithgow needs a bigger, earlier presence, and a stronger opening to set up his character. There's a terrific opening number available in "Dirt," a chorale celebrating the sleaze J.J. dishes out, sung and danced by the show's marvelous ensemble chorus, but, at the moment, it's placed back in the second act.

No such problems affect Brian d'Arcy James' Sidney. Wheedling, begging, sweating, almost on his knees with anxiety, James is the embodiment of the craven little man with big ideas. Handed "At the Fountain," the show's big dramatic aria, by composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Craig Carnelia, James sends it soaring into the audience, triumphant in his blast of emotion. John Guare's book, setting its own course from the Lehman-Clifford Odets screenplay, keeps at least one great line from the movie: "You're a cookie full of arsenic," spoken by J.J. to Sidney. But Guare's personal wit often sparks the dialogue too.

What Guare has not been able to deal with is the show's ending, which ships Lithgow off stage after a climax of nasty tricks by all the principal characters, leaving the last big song to be delivered by a hapless supporting character. Hamlisch's music, in songs and almost continuously in the background, ranges from an edgy `50s jazz, similar to Elmer Bernstein's movie score, to smoother ballads and pop songs, paired with Carnelia's sharp lyrics.

For all its problems (which are solvable), "Sweet Smell of Success," staged with furious drive by Nicholas Hytner, has some precious assets. Wheeldon's work instantly marks him as an inspired Broadway choreographer. His chorus is an invaluable principal character in the story, a hustle-bustle of urbanites who move the action along and swarm about the principals. And, finally, he gives Lithgow a brilliantly conceived song-and-dance number, in which, through Hytner's and Wheeldon's invention, bits of the genial hoofer Hunsecker merrily strutting through a red-white-and-blue soft shoe routine are intercut with brutal scenes of the viciousness he has created.

Bob Crowley's scenery, principally a background arc of skyscrapers surrounding an ever-changing arena of street life and nightclub society, is dramatically lighted from dawn to dusk by Natasha Katz. It captures the allure of "this dirty town," which spawns, promotes and eventually consumes J.J. Hunsecker.

Richard Christiansen is the Chicago Tribune chief critic.