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'Smash' recap: Broadway or bar mitzvah?

March 13, 2012 |  8:27 am

Anjelica houston smash
Mazel tov, Smashers! In a way, the Long Island bar mitzvah that took over way too many scenes of “Smash” Monday night is in its own way an apt metaphor for the show itself: In both there is a lot of insecure voice cracking and an awkward rehearsed performance before everyone dances and pretends they are having a good time. At least in a bar mitzvah (and I know from bar mitzvahs) the vocal break is an accepted part of the routine; a boy is not a man until he goes through puberty on stage in front of his great aunt Esther. In the “Smash” world, a vocal chord blip means a full-on nervous breakdown and a burgeoning drug addiction. Strap on your yarmulkes, folks, this show is going down fast.

What happened this week? I feel like at one point this show was supposed to be about the making of a Broadway show. That’s what the promos sold us, right? I can’t be the only one who came into this whole thing expecting more dancing and less cuddling on a bed talking about minimalist decor. But where we once thought we were getting a story of Broadway, we are just getting a lot of background D-rama about the way of broads, and let me tell you, all the broads on this show are train wrecks right now. And not in the “hey, it’s fun to watch the crash” way. We’re talking such messiness that I don’t know who to root for anymore.

Ivy may have had her triumphant moment of girl power, but it was also as self-destructive a career move as she’s ever made. Karen is possibly getting a record deal from a Jewish fairy godfather, though in general she’s so unprepared for every opportunity life throws at her that she doesn’t know her hava from her nagila. Julia is wandering through Manhattan in just a pajama top.

And Eileen. Don’t get me started on Eileen and the fact that she is now BFFs for life with Ellis and his slimy email-stealing sidekick (do those two belong to a secret brotherhood of smarminess?). Or the fact that she loves a dive bar so very much that she visits it twice in a week, mostly because she has become addicted to playing Big Buck Hunter. I’m just stating the facts here. That’s where they went with Eileen: Big Buck Hunter.

Now, I don’t know what kind of person I would be if I said I hadn’t dreamed of seeing Anjelica Huston, the goddess of class and elegance (and acting her age), pretend to be a hipster. The thought is just so funny and bizarre; it’s an "SNL" parody waiting to happen. And my wish was granted! Unfortunately, this is no sketch. I am supposed to take Eileen’s desire to get wasted on well-vodka and flirt with bartenders half her age at a place called Bushwack’s very seriously (side note: Does the name imply that this beloved dive exists in Bushwick, Brooklyn? This show has no sense of New York geography at all, if so. Eileen doesn’t do Brooklyn).

This is her post-divorce Rumspringa; you see, she has had an awakening. Some women go to the Bahamas, others buy a Porsche. Eileen is moving to the daring Lower East Side (where most hipsters were priced out years ago; she will be living among other millionaire divorcees, but that’s besides the point) and shooting at fake deer. I think the show wants us to see her folly as liberating -- an aging woman takes on the town, to hell with everyone above 50th Street! -- but I am mainly depressed by it. As a girl who spent much of her early 20s standing around Big Buck Hunter in bars like Bushwack’s, I was always told that one day “it gets better.” Apparently, it does not.

Meanwhile, in the land of borderline-stalker affairs, Michael is really sniffing Julia’s tail after their little stoop tryst. Swifty subscribes to the school of “if at first you don’t succeed, try again, incessantly, and then if that doesn’t work, threaten her in public, and if that doesn’t work, call her house, and then if that doesn’t work, take off your shirt and reveal your six pack.” This creepy courtship ritual is just what Julia ordered (can you blame her when she is faced with a husband whose small talk includes how much he loves the element bismuth?) and she is drawn to Michael with such magnetic force that she has to put on pants over her pajamas and walk all the way from Brooklyn to Manhattan in just a nightshirt with no bra to help him sully the rehearsal studio couch. This works because in “Smash,” New York is a magical land where there is no space or time and so Julia can be out of the house for three hours with no repercussions. But even in a dream world, this thing can’t last.

And speaking of oncoming traffic, hows about that Ivy and her prednisone dependency? In another on-the-nose Marilyn reference, Ivy is now hooked on drugs that make her crazy but also give her a sense of control in a world that demands so much of her. In case you didn’t catch the many harmful side effects of prednisone when at least four different characters from the show mentioned them, they can include hallucinations, weight gain, anxiety and cold sweats. Another side effect not commonly mentioned is the intense desire to re-create an early '90s music video in one’s bedroom.

The Ivy number, a cover of Jessie J.’s recent single “Who You Are,” was one of the weakest of the whole season so far. Not because Hilty’s voice lacks any charm, but because the moment was so manufactured. The song was shot like a music video in that it showed Ivy singing to no one in particular in a spotlight, bathed in Auto-tune. We are supposed to accept this whole thing as part of Ivy’s steroidal delusions, but it came off as more of a farce than a dream. When she stands up to Derek in rehearsals later, we want to stand in Ivy’s corner, but it is tough after seeing her so privately tragic. Derek is a jerk, to be sure, and an abusive lover. But when he shuts down Ivy’s emotions in rehearsal, it almost feels like a relief.

Only slightly less tragic was Karen’s insistence on performing a Florence and the Machine cover that just happened to be on the house smooth jazz/klezmer band’s “list” (I’m guessing the keyboardist loves KISS FM?). McPhee’s over-performance, which included a signature “shake it off” hand gesture, felt out of place at the bar mitzvah, but it was also out of place in the show. In not managing to out-Florence Florence (and really, who can? Why did they try to have her cover someone famous and thriving?), Karen leaves the shindig just slightly less powerful. She may be ready to step in as Marilyn, but I’m not sure we want her to. Again, who are we even rooting for anymore?

In other news, McPhee’s mini-dress was showing more leg than Angelina Jolie at the Oscars. At least bar mitzvah boy Ethan will be getting a lot of high-fives at school.

The Songs:

“Who You Are” 2 out of 5 Jazz Hands: Megan Hilty sings a nice cover of the Jessie J. single (except for the word “whoa,” which was hilariously strange), but filming it as a soft-focus music video in the early '90s diva tradition was a bad move. We don’t need to feel even more sorry for Ivy than we already do, but this song made it possible.

“Shake It Out” 2.5 out of 5 Jazz Hands: Don’t give McPhee Welch’s material and expect her to blow it away. I feel like the producers of “Smash” are torturing McPhee a bit with the song choices -- between Adele, Florence and the Machine and Blondie, they are pushing her to re-create iconic performances, and she is found wanting. McPhee is very talented and has a spark to her, and I wish they would infuse that into Marilyn performances, rather than lackluster covers. Also, she needs to stop winking when she sings. Especially in front of pubescent teens.

“History Is Made at Night” 3 out of 5 Jazz Hands: A totally serviceable doo-wop number that seems fun enough ... but does anyone even care about "Marilyn: The Musical" anymore? As the workshop barrels forward, I feel less and less hyped on the original songs. I’d rather just play Buck Hunter.


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How I got a job on "Smash"

-- Rachel Syme

Photo: Anjelica Houston and Jaime Cepero. Credit: Patrick Harbron/NBC.