TV review: ‘Smash’ makes musicals and Marilyn cool again

By Holly Coletta

NBC’s “Smash” has a lot of things going for it, but the most important perk is that it’s not “Glee.” And thank God for that.

The dazzling dramedy has all the components that tempt Broadway and musical fans to make the comparison to Fox’s sing-and-dance megahit, but “Smash” has smarter writing, better acting (and singing) and there’s basically no chance of viewers ever having to suffer through another painful Journey mash-up.

“Smash” is one of those shows-about-a-show and plays like the more serious, artsy-fartsy cousin of “30 Rock.” Debra Messing and Christian Borle are a writing team who are bitten with the inspiration bug after their assistant off-handily mentions how cool it’d be to have a musical based on Marilyn Monroe. A few spats with significant others and too many minutes of pretending to be like, “Should we or shouldn’t we?” even though it’s obvious it’ll happen later and the duo are searching for funding, a director and, most importantly, a starlet to play the bodacious babe.

Academy Award-winner Anjelica Huston shows up as Eileen Rand, who decides to throw her support behind the budding musical even though she’s got more on her mind, like the impending and probably super nasty divorce from her loaded husband. Jack Davenport plays a sort of sleazy director and real-life Broadway vet Megan Hilty and once upon a time “American Idol” runner-up Katharine McPhee play the pretty young things vying for the coveted leading lady.

“Smash” has the Steven Speilberg seal of approval (he’s executive producer), but the series isn’t without its flaws. The hour-long premiere tries to throw a lot at the audience – the backstories feel a little hasty, secondary characters such as the parents of McPhee’s aspiring actress and the writing duo’s assistant could have waited another week to be introduced and the choice of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” as the audition song that seals the deal for McPhee’s Karen is always going to be corny, no matter who sings it. But the directing feels tight, the chemistry natural and the pace feels fast enough for audiences to believe they’re watching the behind-the-scenes birth of a musical.

Messing’s Julia wears cute sweaters and scarves but she’s kind of annoying when she acts like she can’t understand why her husband would be upset that she’s diving into this musical even though she promised she’d take a year off from the business in order to adopt a baby. The best part about her character thus far is her banter with Borle, even though his Tom is about one bitchy comment short of being the stereotypical gay New York playwright. Huston feels too regal to be a standout character and Davenport just needs to decide whether to fully dedicate to the slimeball schtick or not.

Hilty, as sparse as her scenes were, has all the chops to be a suitable foil for the meek McPhee, and her on-stage background (the bubbly blonde did a run as Glinda in “Wicked” – not surprisingly) gives her the more powerful persona of the two. Although, admittedly, “Smash” is McPhee’s show. She’s prettier and more talented than half the cast of “Glee” and apparently took acting lessons since being in “The House Bunny.” An Emmy win might not be in her future just yet, but she – just like her character – has serious potential.

Shows such as “Glee” and movies such as “High School Musical” established that the musical genre can and does have a rabid fan base, and renewed sense of appreciation for Marilyn Monroe via Oscar-nominated movies makes it seem like “Smash” could be a done deal. The series needs fine-tuning, but the premise works and there’s no denying the dance and song numbers are awesome.

Plus, none of the characters are 30 but trying to act like they’re still in high school. Here’s hoping “Smash” catches on. After all, diehard Audrey Hepburn fans are probably already crossing their fingers for a second season’s faux show.

Speakeasy Rating: B+

“Smash”

NBC

Mondays, 10 p.m.

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