SOUND OFF: SMASH Digs Deeper
"Now, there's a movie star!" quoth Eileen (Anjelica Huston) of Rebecca Duvall (special guest star Uma Thurman) following her breathy and spastic performance of a new Julia/Tom musical number for the Marilyn Monroe-based musical-within-the-show on SMASH - BOMBSHELL - titled "Dig Deep". While last night's "The Movie Star" episode of NBC's musical dramedy series SMASH was light on the musical numbers - only Karen (Katharine McPhee) and Rebecca managed a musical moment - the drama was dense and delectable, with the rapport between the motley crew of characters comprising the enterprise continuing to improve by the week (and it startEd Strong). Yet, despite the best efforts of Eileen, Tom (Christian Borle), Julia (Debra Messing) and Derek (Jack Davenport) in attempting to create a new version of the Marilyn musical that showcases her best (and limited) abilities, it is clear Rebecca is a tentative talent who lacks a lot in the vocal and dance departments - to say the least - but, at the same time, it is undeniable that she also possesses a certain air of a star - perhaps because she is one; on SMASH (as in real life, given Thurman's A-list status), a big one. Portraying the "top of the A-list" movie star trying out a Broadway show for the first - and, most likely, last - time, Thurman brings a caustic, nutsy vibe to the seemingly bipolar screen siren - "36-ish;" meaning more like 40-ish in actuality - and gives gravity to the outright cartoonishly written role. Just as the Marilyn musical itself has shown its astonishing, chameleon-like adaptability in its multiple iterations starring Karen and Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) - not only in its star, but also in its style, sound, mood, conception and musical arrangements - now BOMBSHELL is being retrofitted for Rebecca. But, at what cost? Will they throw the baby out with the bath water - or, in this case, toss out the girl along with the dress? Stripping the show of its big Broadway leading lady musical potential and showing off the supporting cast (as a means to take the focus off of the shaky star at the center), BOMBSHELL's "Dig Deep" yet again gave the simply astounding songwriting duo responsible for the songs of the shows-within-the-show on SMASH (including all of the BOMBSHELL songstack heard and seen thus far, as well as the glimpses we have been given at the previous Tom/Julia collaborations, HEAVEN ON EARTH and THREE ON A MATCH) "Dig Deep" was a WEST SIDE STORY-esque hot jazz stunner complete with the syncopation and stylization implicit in the best songs of The Actors Studio era which the 50s-set scene set out to depict (Lee Strasberg and all). Plus, Karen and Dev (Raza Jaffrey) hit a rough patch, Julia and Frank (Brian d'Arcy James) reconvened to get through to their troubled son and Tom gave romance a try with BOMBSHELL chorus boy Sam (Leslie Odom Jr.).
Her Day Will Come
Who will be Marilyn Monroe in the musical-within-the-show on SMASH? So seems to be question of the hour - and, for that matter, the season. While we have been given more than perfunctory performance samples of Karen's naïve and sweet Norma Jean and Ivy Lynn's brassy bombshell of a Marilyn, this week we finally had the chance to see the long-awaited debut of guest star Uma Thurman as the new star of the show in all her glory (as it were). While we know that Thurman is capable of carrying a tune and cutting up a rug (or, in this case, a ceiling) from the recent feature film adaptation of the Mel Brooks musical sensation THE PRODUCERS, her character arc on SMASH is an opportunity for Thurman to also stretch her lesser-seen comedy muscles in the enjoyably eccentric and more often than not over-the-top characterization she brings to the amusing, if grating, role. More often than not, though, Rebecca is proving to be a brief breath of fresh air that adds yet another level of complexity and intricacy to the world of SMASH - ostensibly, a series more or less all about the making of a Broadway musical and the trials, tribulations and tumult of the creative team making it come alive onstage from day to day and week to week - while also adding another level of verisimilitude to the proceedings.
From Hugh Jackman to Daniel Craig to Denzel Washington; from Viola Davis to Julia Roberts to Scarlett Johansson - the concept of star-casting is alive and well and thriving on Broadway, now as always. Big Hollywood names on the biggest of streets in Manhattan has been a part of the landscape virtually since it began a century ago and such casting is elemental in the countless conversations that ultimately decide what shows make it to the Great White Way and manage to make it into one of the coveted handful of theaters eligible for Tony Award consideration - as well as what ones do not. While it has been confirmed that the season finale of SMASH depicts the Boston tryout of BOMBSHELL and not its Broadway bow, we may assume that the ultimate Marilyn will have been chosen by then - in three episodes' time, no less; believe it or not. That soon. Yes, we are nearing the end of the road - or, more to the point, closer to the start of the journey towards Broadway - on Season One of SMASH, so the next three weeks guarantee that we will see the best, brightest and most brilliant material the show has to offer and some truly spectacular musical sequences - both Huston and Hilty confirmed to me that the upcoming Bollywood number (bringing together many threads of the series in one explosive song) may very well be the moment to remember of out of everything we have been lucky enough to experience so far on SMASH.
True, it has been trying to remain a flag-waving fan of each and every moment of SMASH from time to time - but, no matter what the dramatic deficiencies, the uniformly unbelievably effective musical sequences are something to bring back even the most cursory fans of theatrical entertainment to see what is being served up. "Dig Deep" was yet another all around outside-the-box choice, snazzily outfitted with a slinky, sinuousness allure arising out of both the jagged, jumpy and sexy sounds of the music as well as the witty and wild lyrics. Karen's cover of the reggae-tinged Ruby & The Romantics curiosity "Our Day Will Come" was an unlikely but ultimately appropriate musical expression of Derek's ongoing dilemma regarding his ideal Marilyn, but one cannot help but feel that a more rousing and risky Karen song choice at this stage of the game would have even more impact given the light emphasis on song sequences in this particular episode. Speaking of which: Thurman's cringe-inducing croaking out of "Let Me Be Your Star" at the show's start was spot-on in its awfulness and eventually gave rise to some of the soapy highlights of the season insofar as Karen and Ivy Lynn's bitchy roasting of Rebecca and their salty exchanges at the movie screening party. As always, Julia and her family storyline seems slightly shoe-horned in and a bit of a downer and a snooze, as does the development of Tom's relationship, but the soapy and domestic elements are surely enticing to some in the audience so most probably they will remain next season, whether those who want more rehearsal scenes and behind-the-scenes backstabbing like it or not. Also, Huston continues to bring a gravitas and magnetism to her increasingly appreciable character, while McPhee continually makes Karen more interesting than she could be and Raza Jaffrey makes the most out of a sketch of a sketchy guy.
As SMASH enters its final episodes of the season it continues to deliver not only as a satisfying television drama and a must-see musical theatre showcase, but also a refreshing respite from virtually everything else on TV today - after all, it is the one and only show all about Broadway, isn't it? If only for that one true red, hot and blue fact, SMASH remains must-see-TV for Broadway babies and theatrical enthusiasts alike, and, almost every week, it manages to further deepen in its overall dramatic texture and overall entertainment value - no small feat given the tremendous first two episodes - although that does not mean that SMASH as a series has not merely scratched the surface of all that it could (and we can hope, will) be. There is a mountain of gold to be unearthed. The big dig has really just begun - and there's a lot to dig about SMASH, all in all. Dig in.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro