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'Smash' recap: Can Uma Thurman do Marilyn?

April 17, 2012 | 10:45 am

Uma thurman as marilyn smash recap
Uma Thurman has arrived! And she’s not half-bad. In “Smash,” I mean. In “Bombshell,” she is a nightmare. 

For all that Thurman is -- and all the spangly star power that she drags along with her to “Smash” (you can only be introduced to Katherine McPhee so many times before the current formula stales), she is not an actress who naturally oozes a Marilyn Monroe vibe. She’s beautiful and blonde like Marilyn was, and a bit skittish and odd to boot, but she’s not as buxom, or velvety in the voice, and she doesn’t waft fumes of carnality and Chanel No. 5 when she moves. She has the dippy, airy quality required for the ditz scenes, but something’s missing underneath -- a deep pool of unshakable funk that causes one to inhale a fistful of barbiturates, perhaps.

Her heart isn’t heavy enough; Marilyn’s has to be so big and bleeding that it sinks like a stone. So far, the only contender on deck with an organ that weighty is Ivy, whose raw insecurity is gnawing at her bones like a werewolf. McPhee ... well, we’ll get to McPhee. Needless to say she looks like a girl going as Marilyn for Halloween when she dresses the part. Not good.

Back to Thurman/Rebecca Duvall, who doesn’t even really have to be all that good. She is a bloody movie star! And in the meta-pseudo-showbiz world that “Smash” conjures every week, bringing on a bona fide celebrity to play a bona fide unqualified celebrity is the producers’ subtle way of poking fun at the stunt casting that currently plagues Broadway. The shows that value big names over big talents are usually the butt of inner-circle theater jokes, and “Smash’s” snickery team of shownerds are broadcasting their scorn for the Hollywoodization of theatah to the national audience.

Their message: You wanted a real star on this show (because Angelica Huston, Debra Messing, and Bernadette Peters are not enough), NBC? Well then, this is what you get. And she is going to ruin it.

I do have to hand it to Ms. Thurman for putting herself in a position to be ridiculed, the sacrificial lamb to a theatrical ax-grinding. She’s never seemed more awkward -- which mean she’s either acting around the clock to hide her genius stage skills, or she really has no musical aptitude and decided to get in on the joke for kicks.

Either way, her belting sounds like cats and dogs ... and that’s the truth (I had to, apologies). I find it impossible to tell whether or not Thurman can really sing. Maybe I haven’t been watching the same “SNL” episodes that Huston's Eileen has, but I can’t remember knowing if she has a voice (and that’s coming from someone who follows the careers of celluloid troubadours with such interest that she may or may not have purchased Scarlett Johansson’s studio album). What I do know is that she has thrown herself whole-hog into a character who is pathetically bad at Broadway things. Very Stanislavsky-method of her.

What I like about Rebecca Duvall’s flaws is that they read more true than a lot of things “Smash” has done (not that this show ever promised us verisimilitude). She can’t sing well, but she’s not a punchline from the audition outtakes for “American Idol,” either. What makes her so tragic is her mediocrity; she’s not horrible enough to fire outright, and with a little coaching, hey, she may even sell this thing.

Eileen cares enough about the bottom line to squelch any objections to Duvall’s shortcomings, and the actress is herself self-aware enough to understand that she’s not the hottest tamale in the rehearsal space. They seemed to be setting her up as a classic actor-whiner type, with all of her demands for more talking and less jazz hands, but in the end, she admits that her requests all stem from knowing her own limits. In this powwow (where of course the actress is two hours late and remarkably blowsy about her drama-causing men troubles), she becomes just a little more human. Modulate the pitch, give me a few more lines to chew on, make me look good. It’s a moment of frank honesty in a situation that has become a mockery of how it began, and I appreciated it.

Though, if we are going to stick with “Smash’s” party line, which is to say that all that matters is channeling Norma Jean and talking excessively about it, I will say this: only the final-stages Marilyn would have asked them to take it down a key. In her “Misfits” era of shoveling pills and arriving to set bleary and uncooperative, perhaps there would have been some kind of “go easy on me” powwow. But the young Marilyn wanted it so bad she shaved down her nose bone and learned how to titillate  a G.I. in under three minutes. Duvall is going to have the most trouble accessing that starlet; her films are already being made into weak sequels that have the number “2” after their titles. She doesn’t ache for it anymore.

Speaking of aching ambition, Ivy and Karen bonded briefly over Rebecca’s sour notes, but Ivy’s inner mean girl strikes again, telling McPhee's Karen that her understudy role is in jeopardy and that she should grow a thicker skin if she wants to survive the biz. And you know what? I believe her. I’ve been waiting almost two months for Karen to grow a backbone, and she hasn’t, and I’m starting to believe she may be able to stand upright only by some remarkable scientific breakthrough that allows people to go spineless. When she should have her hackles up and her game face on, she can barely introduce herself in rehearsals. Poor thing, she’s going to be eaten alive once Duvall finds out her understudy has those pipes. And there will be Ivy, chin propped on her tented fingers, cackling with flames swelling behind her. Or at least, that’s what the Seconal will make her see.

Delusions abound in the theater, and especially on this show. Our main hallucination now is Derek’s dream lap dances with McPhee as Marilyn, which has now become a weekly occurrence.   It would make more sense if McPhee seemed to become Monroe in a flash, but she just looks like a pretty girl dressed up as Marilyn in some gentleman’s costume club, down to the hammy glances over her shoulders as if to say, come hither, and get your $200 bucks worth. For now, it seems less like Derek is interested in Karen’s talent than her other attributes; perhaps Ivy should do less “blocking the show” when Derek is around and more of something else.

Too bad Dev isn’t seeing Karen as a pin-up fantasy; that role seems to have been filled by a certain New York Times reporter who never seems to be at her own job. All the lies and deception, Dev! I guess this means we are supposed to care about your character and whether or not you stay with Karen. But we don’t. We shant! You haven’t sung or danced once. Go to D.C., elope with R.J. This show will not be bothered with straight-people problems unless they directly affect the outcome of the musical.

I suppose Julia’s affair has some repercussions, if only because she has to bring her bummer of a life to work with her every day, but I can’t seem to get invested in that, either. She had an affair and feels terrible about it, so terrible that she has to make her son's school personnel incredibly uncomfortable with her aggressive confessions. There is some detriment to the fact that this show airs one night after “Mad Men,” a drama that paints adultery with an Impressionist’s brush, vibrant and layered. Julia’s affair is one-note, and desperate, and so is her cowering.

But you know who I do like? Sam. He’s great. He’s a gem. And he’s into long-term commitments and naming Sondheim musicals as foreplay. Of course, some may argue that making him an uber-Christian and putting off the gay sex for another week is some secret plot of the conservative right to infuse morality into a homosexual affair on network TV, but I say, I think the producers just thought it might be fun to watch Tom squirm for a bit.

In other news, Eileen is dating a petty con man, and Ellis’ fakery is exposed for what it is, albeit to a peon who can’t do much to retaliate. Ellis lives to be a nebulous heterosexual another day.


“Our Day Will Come” -- 2 out of 5 jazz hands

So this is a Ruby and the Romantics song, run through the lens of an Amy Winehouse cover, now covered by Karen, who is in turn running her version through a Marilyn outfit, which is really only inside Derek’s brain. Which is to say, it is silly and weak and jawless. What it looks like is a girl at a karaoke birthday party, who decided to dress up as a '50s housewife and sing reggae to a boy she has a crush on. Wouldn’t that be awkward in real life? It is on screen too! Karen in that platinum wig is the new "Zou Bisou Bisou."

 “Dig Deep” -- 3 out of 5 Jazz Hands

This was supposed to be a ballad about method acting, and thanks to Duvall’s total inability to sustain a note, it was doctored into more of a speak-sing beatnik number, a midcentury-Kesha, if you will. While I was completely on board with dancers in leather jackets high-kicking in a smoky room, I can’t take the Marilyn part of this seriously. The sound of ticket-holders asking for their money back, as Ivy warns, is still ringing in my ears.


Last week's 'Smash' recap

Complete "Smash" coverage and recaps

Jaime Cepero on playing Ellis, the guy everyone hates on "Smash"

  -- Rachel Syme

Photo: Uma Thurman in "Smash." Credit: Will Hart/NBC