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Review of NBC Television's Smash (Pilot Episode) which officially aired on Monday, February 6, 2012. Starring Debra Messing, Christian Borle, Katharine McPhee, Megan Hilty, Jack Davenport, Jaime Cepero, Raza Jaffery, Brian D'Arcy James and Anjelica Huston. Created and written by Teresa Rebeck. Original Score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse. Directed by Michael Mayer.
The fun of the show is in the details: Smash pilot trivia question: What was Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle)'s first moderately successful show called? How long did it run?
My mother is a surgical nurse by trade and doesn't watch many medical or procedural dramas on television because she says she can't turn off the professional side of herself. Every time she sees an operation on television, she can't help but pick apart all of the inaccuracies, the wrong medicines being used, the improper technique. "All of the surgeons at Seattle Grace," she says with a smirk, "would be in prison for mass murder - especially Patrick Dempsey!" For her, the technical imperfections overshadow any of the drama and personal goings on in the soap opera that is Grey's Anatomy. Still, I have always envied people whose passion is medical, forensic, legal or criminal justice. TV is full of shows that validate them by portraying them at all.
And so, like many of you probably, I came to Smash full of high hopes and outrageous expectations, not to mention a bit of fear masquerading as common sense (read yesterday's blog HERE). Would a show about my passion - the Broadway musical - validate that passion? Would it be treated with respect, even if it has to have drama that the general public can relate to? And most importantly, would the show within the show be any good? Well, it is hard to put all of my fears and hopes and expectations in one basket, but if the pilot is any indication of the series to come, the answer to all three questions is YES!
While I still stand by my 7 Reasons Why Smash Might Not Be One, the Broadway lover in me really liked it a lot. OK, I loved it. What's not to love? Hell, even the bit parts and walk on roles are being taken by some Broadway greats - Robert LuPone (representing the old guard) all the way to Annaleigh Ashford (representing the new generation). And it really stars my favorite place in the whole world, New York City! From the Yellow Cab with the American Idiot topper to the stroll through Times Square, to crossing 8th Avenue and 45th, I loved seeing the city being portrayed so beautifully.
I think they have cast the show wonderfully as well, though I'm not surprised that some of the best acting - save for the brilliant work by the deliciously understated Anjelica Huston - is done by the people who actually do Broadway. Christian Borle is terrific as the gay composer, with the sense to make him so much more than a swishy stereotype. It is nice to see a confident (outwardly, at least) gay man who doesn't have a purse falling out of his mouth every time he opens it on television. A guy who is subtle enough to check out his assistant's ass and comment only to his hag partner-in-crime. Truly, it is is nice to see a gay character portrayed where being gay isn't all that he is. Bravo to that! Brian D'Arcy James is so smooth on camera and so instantly likable. I hope they use him more; he says so much with a pause, gesture and split-second facial expression. I'll get to the best Broadway starlet on the show in a second...
Debra Messing is a revelation to me here. So far, she is the glue that holds this show together. It is nice to see that she can hold back the "Grace" shtick, and still be funny. And it is really great to see that she can be honest and sincere in serious moments. I'll admit I was afraid we'd see little more than Will and Grace part II from her. But her relationship with a gay guy this go round is much more complex and interesting while devoid of any sexuality. She and Borle have terrific chemistry, and I look forward to some huge fights and fun make ups from them. It is nice to see her play a woman on the verge, but still in control of herself.
Both Jack Davenport and Raza Jaffrey are terrific enough actors to make the stereotype (the former plays) and the sickeningly perfect supportive boyfriend (the latter plays) interesting despite the limits of the script so far. Granted this only the pilot, but doesn't Jaffrey seem a bit too good to be true? And how many sexually ambiguous stage directors who bed every new girl in town have we seen before? Less successful is the assistant, played by Jaime Cepero. Alternately bland as white toast, and maddeningly forthright, I get that we are supposed to be wary of this character. But with as little nuance (maybe he underplays it too much) as we get from him, I can't believe neither composer nor lyricist have no familiarity with All About Eve or even Applause. I can't wait for Debra Messing to bitch slap this kid in a cat fight. (It HAS to go there, doesn't it?) And is it me, or can't you see Robin de Jesus in that part?
The central conflict is between Karen, a Broadway newcomer, and Ivy, a chorus girl who has paid her dues and seems on the cusp of stardom in a role she was born to play. So far, the script has treated them pretty equally. They both have shitty parent support and they both have confidence issues. Karen gets extra help from the director (and knows just how to shut him down!); Ivy has the backing of the writers. Ivy blows the audition piece out of the water, but the director couldn't care less, while Karen knocks her audition out of the park, earning an eye roll and begrudging smirk from the writer. So far the score is tied between Team Ivy and Team Karen. Though she hasn't had the chance to show us her dance skills, Katharine McPhee more than holds her own in a cast of big time acting talents. There really is no disputing that her voicce is top notch, too. And real Broadway darling Megan Hilty is simply brilliant as the emotionally charged (and impaired) chorus gal ready to take the lead. She is vulnerable, sexy and a true triple-threat. She is the real deal. I am sure that it was intended that an actual American Idol contestant was selected to go up against a real Broadway actress on the cusp of super-stardom, considering the infiltration of those contestants on Broadway. Thankfully, McPhee seems of the Jennifer Hudson quality and the Josh Strickland work ethic. In short, I'd pay to see both of them in a Broadway show. (OK, I've seen Miss Hilty twice before already!) If this show works, both ladies are going to make it huge!
But the crux of the show - the making of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe - is what will keep me coming back. And so far so good. The songs from "the show" are great. How can you not squeal with delight (yes, squeal) at the Damn Yankees meets Playboy Channel choreography that matches the naughty lyrics (Hilty coos, "Hot dogs!" to erotically positioned baseball bats) of "The National Pastime."? (Choreography by Joshua Bergasse) And that call back number - WOW!!! When does the Cast Recording come out? Of course, with Shaiman and Wittman providing the score, I'm not surprised - so far the songs have the fun and heart of Hairspray and the adult sophistication of Catch Me If You Can.
Michael Mayer directed a superb pilot here - the man knows how to show us his world and his city - and the Chicago-esque staging of the numbers is a brilliant twist on a recognizable theme. Showing us "The National Pastime" number as it is being staged and flipping seamlessly into what it will look like as a finished product is just plain awesome. Can't you just tell "the creatives" were visualizing opening night as they watched. And what a great way to show us what the girls are thinking about when they audition! Teresa Rebeck has provided a fast-paced, universally relatable script and characters that we can all recognize, Broadway fan or not. And so far, the "common folk" drama - overbearing parents, an impending divorce, a desired adoption - doesn't feel shoe horned in, but rather natural - even show people have real lives, too.
I know they are trying to sell the whole ship with the pilot, but here are a few things I hope they work on in coming episodes:
- Slow the pace down just a smidge. Let us savor the drama and fun.
- Now that the groundwork has been laid, lay off the cavalcade of stereotypes. They get boring very fast.
- Be super careful of interpolating pop songs into this show. Singing them at auditions makes sense. Breaking out into a Madonna tune mid-rehearsal not so much. In fact, the single moment in the pilot that rang completely false to me was when the characters were singing their callback song "Let Me Be Your Star," as the dressed and arrived at the studio. They weren't practicing it, they were performing it. The show is ABOUT a making a musical, not an actual musical, right? Save the song and dance for the rehearsal hall, the workshop and the performance. You'll keep more viewers. I'd bet a week's take from The Book of Mormon on it!
- And more chorus boys and girls please. Sign Curtis Holbrook and Spencer Liff to contracts!
Early in the episode, Messing's character laments that her song has gone viral. "I hate everyone who writes theatre blogs! Hate! Hate! Hate!" she bellows. She goes on to say they/we rush to judgment without seeing a finished product (I, too, loathe those 1st preview reviewers that don't bother to follow up by seeing the same show after it opens!). Well, I hope she wouldn't hate this blogger too much. The pilot is great - not perfect. But I won't judge the whole series just yet. I'll watch a few more episodes and get back to you with some more thoughts. Will Smash be a smash? So far so good!
(Smash trivia answer: The show was Three on a Match and it ran 82 performances.)
Photos from NBC.com