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'Smash' premiere recap: Curtain Up

February 7, 2012 |  6:30 am

  Megan hilty katharine mcphee smash recap

Well, melt your eyeliner on the dressing room light bulb and polish your Capezios, because "Smash" is finally here. Doesn’t it feel like we’ve been living with this show (or at least the bright lights marquee promise of it) for months now? I’m pretty sure I have been “introduced” to Katharine McPhee in over 500 promos since Thanksgiving.

"Smash" has been sold as the Great White Way Hope, the spectacular spectacular that can save NBC from its ratings slump and challenge "Glee" as that-TV-show-that-also-makes-a-ton-of-money-on-iTunes. We’ve got Steven Spielberg! We’ve got Debra Messing! We’ve got Anjelica Huston! We’ve got a whole bunch of Broadway stalwarts that the American public has never seen before, but God love 'em, they are going to adopt into their homes like so many stray puppies.

Like most opening nights, this premiere is 90% high-energy fun, and 10% mess-ups that the actors are awkwardly trying to cover with smiles and high kicks.

REVIEW: 'Smash'

The thing about professional theater is that it's one of the most cutthroat businesses there is; it is backbreaking work combined with constant rejection, and all this on top of having to grind it out in New York City, a place where tap classes and teaching Bikram yoga do not a steady salary make. The trope of starving actors has long existed in Hollywood, but in New York the struggling actors are not only starving, they are pale, exhausted and freezing.

On the other end of all that suffering is the biggest dose of glittery magic -- the reward of making it to Broadway. It’s a high stakes world with huge payoffs, which should make for thrilling TV. And  "Smash" is, for the most part, that. (I'll admit that as as a former theater camp attendee, I squealed more than once upon first viewing). But also, I find myself secretly wishing that we could see the pilot script for the version originally developed at Showtime, which was reportedly a little darker, more insidery. Perhaps a little less mass appeal, a little less sun, could do the show good. The window of "making it" in this world is so slim, and the stakes of "Smash" don't match those of real life. In the pilot, the glossy musical numbers are as catchy as they come, but they come sandwiching more lackluster scenes with characters that could use some roughing up.

Debra Messing’s grand return to the small screen (save "The Starter Wife" because ... well) is convenient for fans of her work in "Will and Grace" because she is basically playing Grace anew. Think about it; artsy alpha-female in a nonsexual but almost-married partnership with a persnickety gay man. Tom (Christian Borle) is slightly more flamboyant than Will was, but in essence, it’s a well-worn pairing, and no one pulls off the role of straight wingwoman like Messing.

Here, she is saddled with the groany B-plot of pretending to care about adopting a baby. (Note to producers: If you don’t let Messing’s screen hubby, played by Brian D’Arcy James, sing on this show, it will be as much of a waste as using a 1962 Pinot to cook with.) And it is clear that show runner Theresa Rebeck and company need to flesh out Messing’s home life if we are to care about it even half as much as we do about the musical numbers.

Though it is painful to see Messing rattle off a bunch of treacly exposition about Marilyn Monroe’s bigger message (“she glows with it like a saint”) in selling us on the Marilyn-themed show-within-a-show, I’m willing to chalk this up to the producers thinking they may have to spell out who Marilyn is for a generation raised on Lindsay Lohan posing as Monroe and not the real thing. 

The real women of the hour are McPhee and Megan Hilty, also known as the new Eve Harrington and Margo Channing of prime time. The one thing that "Smash" had to do in its first episode was get us to like and root for them both, and in a trick I still can’t quite figure out, I think it pulled that off.

McPhee’s audition needed to wow us in order to pull us over to her side, and after so much ceaseless promotion and pre-leaked footage, I was worried that the charm factor would have evaporated before she even began. But McPhee has this something, this twinkle in her eye and crystal clarity to her voice, that makes her impossible to ignore. She pulled it out for "American Idol," when her rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" conjured visions of Miss Garland herself, and she does it again here. She made an overplayed Christina Aguilera ballad feel like a masterpiece, and I think we can all agree that this is a feat. 

As for real-life Broadway vet Hilty, I have the highest hopes for her this season. Rumor has it that in the early development of the show, Ivy Lynn was much more of a villain, a real Margo with claws out, and they neutered the character a bit to make her more relatable. That way, the tension of who gets the part means something to us — we need to care about our starlets equally so that we can stay hooked as the casting process drags on.

That said, I think they may have softened Hilty’s Ivy because as a ruthless doer with ceaseless ambition, she would have been unstoppable. Those are the kind of people that make it to the bright lights, after all. And Hilty is so good, especially in the Marilyn mold; she has the curves to pull it off and this air of mischief and play that screams early Norma Jean. If they didn’t shackle Ivy with a ton of weaknesses, there would be no competition at all.

As for the other characters, we’ll get to them next week. There’s a bit of intrigue as to why Tom and Derek hate each other (first guess: it has to do with other late-night meetings involving Derek’s loft and actress baiting), and Ellis is lucky to have his job after that whole YouLenz debacle (but then, what composer/lyricist team can resist a youth waxing eloquent about the theater in this day and age?). Dev is handsome and dull, and Karen’s parents should probably know what dinner in New York costs by now.

And if the series ever underutilizes Anjelica Huston this way again, then no amount of zazzle and boxstepping can save "Smash." Any good producer should know the cardinal Broadway rule: You never keep a diva in the wings. 

And now, our weekly Showstopper Ranking for the songs:  

1. “Let Me Be Your Star”: 4.5 out of 5 Jazz Hands 

"Smash" composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the duo behind "Hairspray," have their work cut out for them. Not only do they have to write 11-o-clock numbers week after week for a show, they are secretly penning the eventual Broadway transfer that will happen if "Smash" is a hit. I’d be interested in a companion reality show revealing how the pair comes up with this stuff each week, but just as the show doesn’t reveal Messing/Borle’s creative process, I suppose some things are best left to mystery. The winning number from the pair is the show’s closing audition song. Yes, the lyrics are a bit strained — “it’s magic we’ll be making” is not something a native English speaker would say — but Hilty and McPhee’s desperate “GIVE ME THIS ROLE” belting and homemade beauty marks sell the hell out of the thing. When McPhee throws back her head at the end to reveal the fact that even her neck is dying for the part, I gasped. 

2. “The National Pastime”: 3 Jazz Hands

Plus: clever innuendo. Minus: choreography that involved straddling a dancer’s face. Plus: Hilty’s breathy ditz voice as Marilyn. I love it. Minus: Hilty’s ditz voice as Marilyn. I also hate it.

3. “Never Gave All the Heart”: 2 Jazz Hands

We only saw a bit of this number, and while the drama critic Michael Riedel thought it was a "Smash," it felt too sleepy even for the show’s requisite torch song. 

What were your favorite moments? Let me know in the comments.

RELATED:

TV review: "Smash"

NBC hopes "Smash" is a hit

Debra Messing talks about "Smash"

— Rachel Syme 

twitter.com/rachsyme

Photo: Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee in "Smash." Credit: Will Hart / NBC.

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