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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

'Smash' ambitious, entertaining look at Broadway

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The fresh-faced ingenue stands alone on the stage, radiant in the spotlight. As the orchestral music swells, her jaw relaxes, her lips open, and from a place deep within her comes a sterling, beautifully tuned voice. It's the product of endless rehearsal and study and vocal coaching, sure, but at the very core of that lovely voice is the raw, real talent of a young woman who has dreamed of this moment since she first caught the performance bug so many years before. She's in the moment now, relaxing into the song and letting the joy of singing it fill her heart.

And then a cell phone rings.

In a flash, it's back to reality. The ingenue is no longer on a stage, she's in a rehearsal space, auditioning for a disinterested director (the one who can't be bothered to shut off a cell phone) and a few others. No spotlight, no costume and -- as usual -- no part.

The above comes from the first few minutes of the new NBC series, "Smash," which airs Monday nights at 9 p.m. The new series, which counts Steven Spielberg as one of its executive producers, is an ambitious -- and so far, mostly terrific -- effort to draw back the curtains and show viewers the behind-the-scenes world of Broadway theater.

"Smash" centers on a playwright-slash-songwriter named Julia (played by Debra Messing) who is inspired during a visit with her writing partner, Tom (Christian Borle), to take on a new (and decidedly risky) project -- a musical about Marilyn Monroe. Early on, the duo rejects the idea; it's been done, they say, and it was a big flop.

But neither Julia nor Tom can let the idea go, and soon enough, they start putting a song -- and then a second and a third -- together. They bring in a favorite cast member from their current show, a Broadway vet named Ivy (Megan Hilty), to cut a demo of their first song; her not-meant-for-the-public performance ends up splashed across the Internet, thanks to Tom's ambitious new assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero). The writers fear that the premature release will wreck the project before it can even get started, but when the response is overwhelmingly positive, they decide to take the leap.

This means taking a meeting with potential backer Eileen (Anjelica Huston), whose dream of mounting "My Fair Lady" is foundering, thanks to a contentious divorce. She wants them to consider a highly sought-after director, Derek (Jack Davenport), who delivers a fantastic rehearsal staging of one of the big show-stopping song-and-dance numbers, but is someone Tom loathes on a personal level.

Meanwhile, the ingenue from the opening scene, a waitress-by-day named Karen (played by Katharine McPhee), has been watching Ivy's performance, learning that first song, and stoking her dreams of stardom. But Ivy has her own dreams; perhaps this is the show that will finally allow her to make the leap from the edges of the stage to the center of it. (The two actresses are the focus of the final audition sequence, dueting on a song called "Let Me Be Your Star," that is as much about the women's separate and shared desires for the role as it is a song sung in the musical.)

"Smash" covers a lot of ground in the first hour; I suppose that with a show this ambitious, it has no choice. It helps that the show understands the struggles of stage production (and no wonder, since it was written by Theresa Rebeck, an experienced playwright and television scribe) and that the central roles are so well played. Messing is as good here as she's been in anything I've seen her in, and she and Borle are believable as friends and business partners; Hilty not only has an amazing voice, but displays the cool toughness of a seasoned performer who is realizing that her chances at stardom are slipping away; McPhee is warm and attractive in her role as an up-and-comer who feels the internal pressure to succeed. (And yes, she's also a heartbreakingly good singer.)

There were a few too many scenes that felt paint-by-number (a dinner scene with Karen's disapproving Midwestern parents, for example, or Ellis' speech about his love of the theater, for another), and I was hot-and-cold on the choice by the makers to have the songs performed with full backing orchestration.

The music and lyrics (by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) are excellent, and excellently produced, but I wanted less of that, and even less of the fully-staged and choreographed fantasy numbers. Sure, those parts look great (how can they not?), but I'm willing to wait for them in favor of scenes of rehearsals on bare stages with performers feeling their way through the words. The reality of putting a show together from scratch -- with all the blood, sweat and tears shed during the process -- is an often-fascinating sequence of events, and shouldn't be rushed over.

But I actually have hope with "Smash," thanks to the people involved, that we'll get to see the nuts-and-bolts work that goes into something that looks effortless. This is as promising a start to a series as I've seen so far this year. Three and a half stars (out of four).

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Jeremy Blomstedt
The Entertainment Center