Smash Episode 1.01: ‘Pilot’ Recap & Review

Posted on February 7, 2012


Smash Titles

Summary: A strong series premiere full of terrific performances gives a genuine, intelligent, and entertaining look into the world of Broadway theatre and the pursuit of dreams.
Rating: 9/10

** Note: Review contains spoilers if you have not seen the episode.**

Review Trailer
The quick skinny on the episode.

KSiteTVSynopsis: Newcomer Karen and Broadway chorus vet Ivy vie for the lead role in a new musical based on the life of movie screen legend Marilyn Monroe.

Full Recap: Karen, a struggling actress who hasn’t been in New York long, works as a waitress and makes her way to whichever auditions she can find. She’s rudely dismissed from her latest audition for being “light”, a theatre term for having very few credits on your CV.

Auditioning for the same production, Ivy, a veteran of the chorus in a number of productions, finds out that she doesn’t make a callback. Talking with her friend Tom, a writer and composer who currently has a show called Heaven on Earth running at the Shubert, Ivy is offered the opportunity to record a demo version of a new song Tom’s written with his partner about Marilyn Monroe. Tom’s partner, Julia, has committed to taking a year off from Broadway to focus on adopting a child with her husband. In talking with Ellis, a young man who watched Tom’s condo while he was out of town, the two hit upon the idea of created a musical based on the life of Marilyn. Julia and Tom record the demo with Ivy, which Ellis video-captures with his cellphone and sends to his mother. His mother leaks the video online and the song takes the theatre community by storm.

On the boost, Julia and Tom move forward on writing a full-fledged show, much to the chagrin of Julia’s husband. The writers are approached by Eileen, an old producer they’ve worked with currently going through a messy divorce, who wants to fund the show and suggests they work with an award-winning director named Derek Wills. Tom is reluctant because he has worked with Derek in the past and doesn’t care for him but agrees in the end when he sees what Derek does with one of the numbers they’ve written for the show. Though Tom and Julia both want Ivy for the lead role, auditions are held to find a Marilyn.

Karen, bolstered by her boyfriend, goes out for the part and makes the callback, as does Ivy. Derek, enchanted with Karen, invites her over to his place to see what she is willing to do to get the part. Karen gives him a sexy performance in the style of Marilyn but stops short of sleeping with him, preferring to stick to her principles. Both Karen and Ivy have amazing performances at the callbacks, leaving the production staff with a hard decision.

Feature-Length Review
The in-depth review.

So, I have a tendency to “live tweet” shows that I’m watching. Usually, it’s competition shows where it’s nice to send and receive feedback about a performance or a particular person. I do it with some of the dramas I watch as well, especially if others I know are watching at the same time. I mention this because I sent one and only one tweet as i watched NBC’s new musical drama series Smash: “Through the first act of #Smash and I already adore this show.”

Honestly, I think Smash is the kind of show I’ve been missing for a while. With my normal watercooler shows like Smallville and 24 having retired in the last year or two, old faves like House and NCIS no longer demanding my attention, and newer nuggets like The Good Wife falling victim to scheduling conflicts, I haven’t had a show that’s really gripped me and allowed me to ruminate on it well past watching an episode. Now, I have another.

I wasn’t excited for Smash in the run-up to it. I was burned by Glee (really, reeallly enjoyed the first 13 episode run of that series before it all but sold out its entire concept on that first season back nine and subsequent seasons) and wasn’t enthralled with the idea of more musical shows. It’s one of the reasons why I avoided investing my time in watching this series premiere when NBC released it online weeks ago. In the last week or two, the idea of tuning in to just give it a fair chance took root and I went with it. Glad I did.

Having come from a theatre background – though, I prefer straight plays to musical theatre – there is certainly a vast appeal to a series like this for me. To smash open – yes, indeed – smack in the middle of the audition process brought me right home. I’m not entirely sold on the concept of intercutting a performance with a rehearsal during the musical numbers as this premiere episode was happy to do, but this opening bit gave a wonderful introduction to the mindset of Katharine McPhee’s Karen. When the whole endeavor was interrupted by the producer/casting director’s phone, I let out a huge laugh. This was a story coming from an informed place and it hit all the right marks out of the gate, enduring another rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” aside.

This opening sequence wasn’t done, though, as they quickly shuffled Karen out and gave us a fabulous introduction to Megan Hilty’s Ivy. These two are vying for the lead in the show’s centerpiece new musical Marilyn and this was one of the strongest ways they could present each to the audience. And it wasn’t even an audition for Marilyn. Superb writing and it underscores something very evident about the entire hour: it wasn’t forced and each scene is brief, lively, and near note-perfect.

Both lead actresses are luminous, as seen as the hour unfolded. More importantly, both feel lived in and real. McPhee’s Karen is obviously the green ingenue, easily identifiable as the one to root for. I have to say I’m mightily impressed with McPhee. I can recall her on American Idol but can’t say she did anything that really made me want to follow her career. I certainly didn’t expect her to be as surehanded and honest in this role as she turned out to be. She’s a fantastic casting choice and she has the goods to carry the musical aspect as well. Her entire command of the set-up-for-icky sequence at director Derek Wills’ (Jack Davenport) apartment, from drink to the bathroom to the way she took hold of the situation in the end, brought appropriate color and depth to Karen and turned me into a fan.

Hilty’s Ivy, though, has been through the paces. It’s not clear how long she’s been in New York trying to make the dream happen but it’s very evident that she’s been at this a while. They do something very inventive with her character. We expect a counterpoint to Karen, a “villain” if you will. That forceful, gung ho attitude she exhibits in the opening sequence, coming into the room right after Karen and daring them to give her the part, sets her up perfectly to fill that expected role. But then they switch gears and show her not getting the part and her very human reaction to that. They tie her immediately to writers Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing), having her “originate” the song that kicks off this whole Marilyn endeavor. Suddenly, you find yourself pulling for her. This isn’t a story about good guys and villains. This is a story about competition and how it affects two peoples lives and it’s a brilliant way to approach a series. Hilty, a Broadway stage vet, absolutely owns that and leaves wanting as much for Ivy as you want for Karen.

As much as I enjoyed the peeks into the two actresses lives – not fully sold on Karen’s boyfriend Dev yet, but there’s promise; and I hope there’s a bit more to her family storyline than just a father who hasn’t bought into following dreams – it was when the show focused on the creative process of Tom and Julia that it really dug its hooks in. In particular, the scene between Julia, her husband, and their son when she first comes home with the idea of Marilyn spinning around in her brain intimately shared what a creative life is like and not just the scores of pained cliches we’ve become so accustomed to out of film and television.

Debra Messing is outstanding in the role and it’s a part and performance very different from Grace or The Starter Wife. She underplays it, which gives her gravity and weight we haven’t seen before. At the same time, that spark we’ve always seen from her is still present. I’d wager to say this is probably closer to who she is in her day-to-day life and informs her role, the family on the show, and the entire production with authenticity. Plus, the scarf just screams theatre! Coupling her with Christian Borle’s higher-strung Tom is a shrewd move and gives each fun partners to play with. The adoption angle could prove to be an interesting insight into balancing life with career and passion but I’m not on-board with it just yet.

I’m intrigued by Davenport’s director and Anjelica Huston’s producer but we weren’t given enough time to really take them in. They gave us enough of a base with each – beleaguered and amidst divorce for her; and visionary but egocentric for him – to understand their pieces of the puzzle, but I look forward to a lot more shades from both. Having each really drove home how personality-driven the world of theatre is, though, so the promise they hold is great. My one hope is they really give us a look at the work and not kind of brush it aside like they did during the “National Pastime” number. The rehearsal should have felt more like a workshop session, despite trying to sell us on the brilliance of Derek. This was a time where I felt that cutting to a production run performance during the rehearsal scenes not only didn’t add anything to the scene but actually took away from it. I liked the number but it felt like it could’ve said a lot more.

The ironic aspect in all of this is that I’m not nor have I ever been that much of a Marilyn Monroe aficionado. I’ve enjoyed her performances and certainly think she’s a stunningly attractive woman. It’s just never been a hubbub I’ve involved myself in. There’s also the worry that because there seems to be such a revival of Marilyn focus that, perhaps, this isn’t the best subject they could’ve built a show around. Gratefully, they addressed this right from the get-go, so I’m willing to give them some rope with it.

Overall, it is easy to be in love with the world of Smash, even after just one episode. I’m sure my own personal experience colors that but that could also work to its detriment. I’ve never gone through a Broadway (or Off-Broadway, for that matter) production cycle, particularly workshopping and getting a new show up and running. There was still enough that was authentic and real about the process and the environment of theatre in this first episode to suit my fancy. More importantly, there was enough for people who have never set foot in a theater, let alone backstage, to be drawn in. Let’s give it a few more weeks, but it would appear NBC has a hit on their hands. Beyond that, they have a show to be proud of.

Read ReviewClick to read the original article at KSiteTV.

Posted in: Smash, Television