Thursday, January 19, 2012

Pilot Review: Smash

Smash (Mondays at 10:00 on NBC; Premieres February 6)

There just aren't enough words for the euphoria I felt after watching the Smash pilot. I'm a theatre person, so I expected to like it. But the utter perfection of Smash is so obvious that anyone should, and likely will, appreciate it. From its smart script, to the on-pitch performances from a brilliant ensemble, to the dazzling musical numbers, Smash is pure joy.

Karen (Katharine McPhee) is a young waitress trying to make it on Broadway without disappointing her fiancee (Raza Jeffrey). Ivy (Megan Hilty) is a Broadway veteran, having appeared in the ensemble of a number of musicals, looking for her big break. Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing) are the hottest up-and-coming composing team in New York after their last show opened to stellar reviews. Eileen (Anjelica Huston) is a Broadway producer whose pet project, a revival of My Fair Lady, is stuck in development hell following her messy divorce. Derek (Jack Davenport) is a highly-praised, much-sought-after director looking for his next project. All of these people, and many others, converge in one sweeping story of the creation of a musical, from idea to composition to casting to performance, about the life of screen icon Marilyn Monroe.

Even if you don't give a crap about theatre, you'll find something to like in Smash. If you like theatre, you'll find everything to love in Smash. The cast and crew are a stellar blend of cross-media talents, from Oscar winners (Anjelica Huston, executive producer Steven Spielberg) to Emmy winners (Debra Messing) to Tony winners (composers Shaiman & Wittman, director Michael Mayer), and everything in between: stage actors (Borle, Hilty), recording artists (McPhee), and movie stars (Davenport). It's an unbelievable blend of talent that absolutely explodes on screen.

Playwright Theresa Rebeck has written a snappy, witty, relevant script. She handles the large ensemble admirably, thanks to some help from Mayer behind the camera. He adeptly films the large musical numbers, employing features of both traditional performance and the fantasy element that was so successful in the film Chicago. His work in the intimate scenes is just as impressive, if not as fluid. But all of this is truly brought to life by some star-making performances from the amazing cast. Debra Messing proves she's more than just her character on Will & Grace and has an undeniable chemistry with the charming Borle. Their scenes together are among the pilot's best. Katharine McPhee, an American Idol runner-up, is surprisingly good in her acting debut. In her final scene with Jack Davenport, she is sultry and every bit Marilyn Monroe. Strangely enough, it is her vocal performance of the Christina Aguilera song "Beautiful" that is her weakest moment; she fares much better in the pilot's finale, belting out "Let Me Be Your Star" (composed by the team behind Hairspray) with Megan Hilty. Speaking of Hilty, she absolutely walks away with the pilot. She burns brighter than anyone else, stealing each and every scene in which she appears; from the show's biggest musical number ("The National Pastime") to one of the show's most intimate moments when Ivy calls her mother about receiving a callback, Hilty has the star-making role of Smash. The musical may be about Marilyn, but the show is all about Ivy.

No review would be complete, however, without addressing the elephant in the room: this is no Glee. The two shows aren't similar in any manner except that they both contain music/on-screen singing. The music in Smash is not superfluous; it's an integrated part of the musical process. Whereas Glee uses music to (in theory) tell the show's story just as much as it does for performance pieces, Smash uses the music in the way it was intended to: as part of the show within the show. There is only one moment, in the finale, where the characters burst into song; but this is a fantasy, as both Karen and Ivy are living their audition song: "Let Me Be Your Star." It becomes their anthem, a plea not only from Marilyn but from two women on the verge of destiny. It's a totally appropriate moment. You likely won't see Jack Davenport busting out some "Gold Digger" or an episode of Smash dedicated to musical numbers by Madonna. Smash is a totally different beast, and an utterly successful and rewarding endeavor. Give it a shot, it's easily the season's best pilot... and probably one of the best I've ever seen, in any season.

ETA: Upon a second viewing, Smash is just as enjoyable and even more layered than I originally thought. I was able to see much more depth in the pilot as a whole, especially in its sly nods to Marilyn Monroe. The big baseball number "The National Pastime" featured a nice wink to Monroe's famous "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" I didn't catch on first listening, and the much-promoted performance of "Beautiful" by McPhee actually made sense more when looked at in the context of who Marilyn was: a beautiful but insecure woman. Truly great work. I can't wait to see more.

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