For probably the first time in entertainment history, executing a project conceived by Steven Spielberg (“War Horse”) was a risk. The notoriously successful director created the television show “Smash,” which is about the world of Broadway and those who inhabit it.
While a musical show like “Glee” (Lea Michele) is considered a general success story, others, such as “Viva Laughlin” (produced by Hugh Jackman), have infamously bombed. When it comes to investing time and money into a musical TV series, it can be a real gamble (pardon the “Viva Laughlin” joke).
So how about investing $7.5 million in the pilot alone? While “Smash” costs a pretty penny to produce, it is a theater lover’s dream come true.
It all begins with Karen Cartwright, (Katherine McPhee, “American Idol”) a Midwesterner trying to establish herself as a musical theater actress. Cartwright continuously struggles and is often shut down by producers in favor of their cell phone calls.
Meanwhile, Julia Houston (Debra Messing, “The Starter Wife”) and her musical-writing partner Tom Levitt (Christian Borle,”Mary Poppins” [musical]) decide to create a show based on the life of Marilyn Monroe — a well-known taboo in the American theater. At first, they recruit the bombshell Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty, “9 to 5, The Musical”) to record some numbers as Marilyn.
Things are quickly complicated when director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport, “The Boat That Rocked”) and producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston, “The Big Year”) become involved in the project, ultimately setting up a competition for the lead between Ivy and Karen.
While some musical cliches such as stock characters, general drama and economic struggles infiltrate the content, the writing is sharp and the performances are riveting. With all original music, the songs further plot points and also add some humor (i.e. “Hey, we could do a baseball number!” in reference to Marilyn’s relationship with Joe DiMaggio.) The numbers also take a stylistic cue from the film “Chicago” in that the costumes and sets transition back and forth between rehearsal and an extravagant stage.
However, the show’s best asset is its cast of gifted actors who satisfy audiences’ desire for star power and talent. Hilty and McPhee prove themselves to be worthy leading ladies through their acting, dancing and great vocal ranges — though sometimes Hilty’s Broadway experience allows her to outshine McPhee.
“Smash” has also generated a buzz with new guest stars like Uma Thurman (“Ceremony”), who will play a famous movie actress coveting the lead part. Also, theater fans will rejoice that two-time Tony winner Bernadette Peters (“Follies” [musical]) will guest star to play Ivy’s pushy mother. Peters is no stranger to the role, as it is reminiscent of the character Rose in “Gypsy,” for which she earned a Tony nomination in 2003.
Overall, “Smash” is entertaining, and even captivating if you are interested in theater. The show hopefully will not veer into “Glee” territory, marked by unnecessary and farfetched plot points. This program could turn into NBC’s crown jewel or its biggest headache, depending on whether the writers stay true to the theater roots of “Smash.”
4 out of 5 stars