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'Smash' recap: Workshop through the pain

March 20, 2012 | 11:39 am

Bernadette peters megan hilty smash recap the workshop
“Smash” is quickly dividing itself into two shows, splitting like a set of conjoined twins who once worshiped at the altar of the Great White Way into separate beings that pray to competing gods -- that of Broadway and, well, that of “Glee.”

On the one hand, you’ve got your total theater nerd wish fulfillment, what with Bernadette Peters swanning in to drop some Momma Rose on us for basically no reason other than that being the fantasy of every Tom and Jenny who went through puberty at drama camp. On the other, you’ve got a madcap melodrama with no real consistency in which the stars belt Top 40 hits with invisible backup singers and an Auto-Tune dial and everyone is plotting against everyone else. The “Glee” bug has finally crept into the foundations of “Smash,” and it’s not the best development. 

What the show promised to us, in its subtle way,  was that it would be the anti-“Glee,” the grown-up alternative to seeing teenagers angry-sing Adele at each other. This is the epilogue, the world after Rachel and Kurt move to New York and are inevitably weeded out by superior talent -- this was supposed to be the tale of that talent. (Side note: Don’t you love imaging Kurt and Rachel as the token ensemble friends of some ingenue someday? It’s their destiny!)

But “Smash” is getting scared of being too insidery, too tailored to show people, and so the producers drop in radio hits and “OC”-level soapsuds. And at the same time, it doesn’t want to lose the small-but-necessary core audience of theater obsessives. So what I’m saying is, this is a show that has Katharine McPhee covering Colbie Caillat in one scene and Bernadette Peters giving Tony Award realness in the next. It’s a little bipolar. But as Eileen might say, “I know from bipolar -- I work in the theater. Now pour me another $7 martini, you handsome barkeep!”

So, the workshop. Deep breaths, everyone, this is an important day. And like all important days on television, everything is going wrong. The boiler is overheating all those Nederlanders and Shuberts, who arrived in the wooliest of suits, for maximum discomfort. Julia is dumping Michael Swift yet again, after his toddler turned her cuckolding ovaries to mush. Ivy is a quivering ball of insecurity because her grande dame mother is a master underminer, and Eileen is trying to juggle breaking into the building’s innards and a hot flirtation session with her vodka pusher.

All things considered, the workshop isn’t a total failure, though there are too many slips and crashes. I actually liked this part of the episode, because it felt like a real Broadway moment; workshops really do happen in dance studios with couches for props, and they aren’t perfect. All the musical has to do is show potential.

After hearing all the songs we’ve heard before in one place (along with the addition of Michael/Joe’s tearful kiss-off number), I can see how producers could suggest that “Marilyn” needs some more work before hitting the stage. There are some beautiful moments in the songs, but the book is wobbly, and there isn’t a number that feels fresh and new enough to dazzle. Of course, maybe that’s because Ivy fizzled like a bath bomb once her mother arrived to steal her energy, or because Karen was backstage, secretly sucking the sparkle out of Ivy’s eyes like a vampire. Why go to a meeting with Mr. Raskin when you can subconsciously sabotage a low-stakes workshop instead?

The Karen character is becoming the most “Glee”-like, in that she is a big question mark from episode to episode: One minute she is confident enough to make a snoozy studio tech profess his love, the next, a loyal little mouse who chooses to perform in the workshop rather than to go grab her record deal. And not 10 minutes after that, we learn that Karen stayed at the workshop so that she could concoct elaborate fantasies about stealing the part of Marilyn, and wanted to prove her fidelity to Derek, in a sly (and maybe not altogether apparent, even to Karen) play for the big role.

She’s a schemer, a dreamer, an innocent and an operator. She’s also fresher and shinier than Ivy is, and that’s her trump card. She’s Norma Jean to Ivy’s Marilyn -- or at least that’s what “Smash” wants us to believe. She hasn’t had her time yet, and it is coming, and it scares the hell out of Ivy.

Ivy, who turns out to come from a Broadway lineage so great that the token gay and token girl choristers practically squeal when Lee Conroy (nee Bernadette Peters) sashays in. Ivy can never fill such big shoes, and her mother lets her know it, but it’s only out of love, you see. Because of all the rejection and things. Ivy’s momma doesn’t want her baby girl dancing in the ensemble and risking getting SARS in the wings while lesser talents pass her by; but of course, that would never happen to her, she won a Tony in her sleep. She won a Tony and she never takes the subway and she makes late entrances because attention must be paid. Ivy is out-diva’ed by a mile. I admired her speech about Marilyn’s mother and the fact that people seem to forget that Marilyn killed herself so young because no one really loved her, least of all her mother, but Ivy still can’t convince me of her chops. She’s just too broken to make it work.

And speaking of broken, Julia pulled the old “let me dump you via a scene that is about dumping you” trick on Michael, and it didn’t exactly stick. When a man pursues you for weeks and doesn’t really care who sees you holding hands on the street, despite both parties being married, chances are he isn’t going to take a breakup well. Thank goodness Julia and Tom had written just the perfect rage-song, providing Michael an avenue to express his feelings, Broadway-style. Do you feel the power of his theater tears, Julia? Do you? 

Seems she did; she had to fire the show’s best player just to clear her conscience and her voice mail. It was a cold-hearted move, but when Tom suggested it (and Eileen went along with it, knowing what was happening thanks to her sneaky best friend Ellis), I realized that it was an act of kindness in the long run. The show was suffering with the tension, and even Derek would agree that one should always act in the best interests of the show. Unfortunately, Derek doesn’t know that kicking Michael to the curb was anything but a selfish power play, and so he is off to make one of his own. Get ready for some insubordination and mutiny, with jazz hands. It’s only fitting that the production team of “Marilyn” become as bipolar as “Smash” itself.

The Songs:

“Brighter Than the Sun” 3 out of 5 stars. Damn if Katharine McPhee isn’t as charming as anything. But she shouldn’t be Auto-Tuned, not this much. And where did all the instrumentals and backup singing suddenly come from? The sound tech seemed too hung over to be making that studio magic happen.

“Everything’s Coming Up Roses” 4.5 out of 5 stars. Broadwaygasm. Some show queen just fainted. The end.

“Lexington and 52nd Street” 4 out of 5 stars. So far, one of the musical’s best numbers. It’s mean, and sad, and it’s fun to see someone else sing his heart out who isn’t Ivy. Michael proved himself an essential member of the cast with this. Too bad he slept with the lyricist, making himself also completely expendable. 

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Photo: Bernadette Peters and Megan Hilty. Credit: Eric Liebowitz / NBC.

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