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Katharine McPhee (NBC) What do you get when you mix the musical panache of Glee with top-notch writing, dynamic characters, and a gaggle of seasoned performers? You get Smash, NBC's new drama about the making of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe. And it is, in a word, smashing.
The world of struggling performers, so full of wanting and wanting but almost never getting, has always seemed (to me) to be ripe for television. Smash gives us that in the characters of Karen (Katharine McPhee) and Ivy (Megan Hilty), a Broadway neophyte and a perpetual chorus girl who both long to nab the coveted Marilyn Monroe role in the new musical. But Smash also expands the scope of its story to include the show's playwrights Julia and Tom (Debra Messing and Christian Borle), its roguish director Derek (Jack Davenport), and its producer Eileen (the always delicious Anjelica Huston).
The pilot episode introduces us to all of the characters within the context of Marilyn, but it also gives us glimpses of their lives beyond the stage. Julia is trying to adopt a baby with her husband, Eileen is involved in messy divorce proceedings, Karen's parents want her to give up on her acting dreams and move back to Iowa, and more. Everyone has a story both inside and outside of the making of the musical, and those stories are all interesting and open-ended. The one exception might be Ivy, who is the only character that seems to get the short end of the backstory stick. Smash would do well to dive a bit deeper into what makes Ivy tick; in the pilot she already feels like an also-ran to Karen and that won't do if the central question of the first season is, as it appears to be in previews, which of the two ladies gets the lead role.
Messing, Huston, and Davenport are well cast, and all of them are just as dynamic onscreen as ever. American Idol alum Katharine McPhee (who appeared in just a handful of film and TV roles before being cast in Smash) is also generally good, though she still seems — to steal a recurring description of her character — a bit "light." She is at her best when she's singing (her rendition of Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" brought me to tears), but there seems to be a certain tentative blandness to the rest of her performance. McPhee is certainly very talented, though, and her performance will only get sharper and more specific as she gains experience.
Created by playwriting vet Theresa Rebeck and produced by Steven Spielberg, Smash boasts an impressive cast and crew. The heavily-anticipated new show has been compared to Glee in the press, but the only thing that Smash and Glee have in common is that they both have characters who occasionally burst into song. Where Glee is generally uninterested in realism and believable character growth, Smash has filled its fictional world with people and settings that seem very much real. From the dingy audition room hallways to the crowded streets of New York City, Smash's version of Broadway is less 'neon lights' and more 'next, please.'
But Smash also knows how to turn up the glamour with well-timed flights of fancy. There's a stunning sequence in the pilot episode that cuts between a workshopped version of a musical number and the fully dressed stage version; it's not only expertly choreographed and edited, but also just plain delightful. And the final audition duet between Karen and Ivy is a real showstopper.
As a former actress and a lover of all things musical theater, I'd really love to see Smash do well. Not just because it's really well done and will probably end up employing a ton of talented theatrical singers and dancers. But also because it would be nice to have a musical show that focuses on things like story continuity and cohesive character development. A singing show for grown-ups, if you will.
Smash premieres on NBC on February 6 at 10/9c.
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