SOUND OFF: SMASH Flies The Coup
Sporadically shedding its former skin as a mainly musical endeavor; flying the coop - last night's "The Coup" episode of NBC's musical dramedy series SMASH stepped outside the box and presented a drama-focused show heavy on the plot and light on the musical numbers - with surprisingly strong results, believe it or not. As has become abundantly apparent, in the seven episodes up until this point, SMASH seems to have excelled in its musical sequences which floated high, flying, adored (like Eva Peron in EVITA) above everything else; enlivening the proceedings where the story fell short - usually, with Ivy (Megan Hilty) dominating the Marilyn Monroe show-within-the-show songs and Karen (Katharine McPhee) making the very most of an impressive mélange of pop covers - but, as penned by Scott Burkhardt and directed by GLEE veteran Paris Barclay, "The Coup" showed that SMASH has legs and can sustain a character/plot-focused story from time to time, too. And, anyway, it's hard to complain too much about a lack of songs when we were presented with perhaps the most unique and stylized pop musical number to date in the form of the Top 40-ready Ryan Tedder/One Republic-written potential Marilyn burlesque routine - that is, if Derek (Jack Davenport) takes the show-within-the-show in an entirely new direction and leaves Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing) by the wayside. That potential prospect seems highly unlikely, though - to say the very, very least. Speaking of high, "The Coup" flew the coop as far as daring to do what many may have thought unlikely or impossible - namely, weaving in almost seamless, fully-integrated musical sequences such as Ivy & company's down and dirty bowling alley cover song set to the funky 60s sounds of Sly & The Family Stone's "Dance To The Music" (and, keeping with that theme, we also had Brian d'Arcy James intentionally undersinging "Three Little Birds" by Bob Marley); or, effortlessly managing to make a contemporary song in a musical theatre milieu actually function (more or less) and come alive in the form of the sexy and titillating "Touch Me". Yes, "The Coup" stylistically diverged from what has come before on SMASH, but the more risks taken, the more rewards reaped. Definitely don't count all the eggs in the SMASH basket before they're hatched, whether or not Spring is upon us!
Touch & Go
SMASH has not yet found its voice - and that may be a good thing. Sure, it has some great melisma and some big, big money notes and there is absolutely no question whatsoever that it can carry a tune and hold our attention, but the technique of a tried and true triple-threat the likes of which you are bound to find in any and every show on Broadway is simply not in evidence - at least not yet. With news breaking this week of not only the moderate hit's renewal for Season Two, but also the ousting of creator and former show runner Theresa Rebeck, it seems that SMASH is set on a new course and in some intense training that will test its abilities to perform under pressure - and dare the show to succeed under considerable scrutiny. How wonderful, then, to report that, so far, the ultimate experiment of SMASH is paying off - bumps in the road notwithstanding. Last night's Episode 7 mimicked Episode 3 in many ways - largely due to the fact that both episodes explored more of Karen's storyline and, thus, had a more contemporary and NYC cool vibe, as opposed to the entertaining and soapy but occasionally cringingly camp moments (along with those appreciably so) involving most, if not all, of the cast of characters concerned with the show-within-the-show itself. With Ivy and Derek taking a break, both professionally (the Marilyn workshop was last week and there have been no bites since) and romantically (things have cooled between the director and star), the environment conducive to a good old fashioned secret rehearsal - the type you hear about in stories from out-of-town musicals in trouble in the 1960s; like SEESAW, involving Michael Bennett, Lainie Kazan and Michele Lee - revealed itself and Derek, Karen and Ryan Tedder himself made the notes come together and hit a chord or two - especially in the big number.
The intentionally stylistically modern and techno-tinged "Touch Me" sequence as thrillingly played by Katharine McPhee and her all-too-able dancer corps may not go down as the most memorable song or musical sequence on the show to date - nor even the best contemporary selection in the overall quite astounding songstack amassed by SMASH so far - but, it's undeniable that that sequence as rendered on film showcased the limitless possibilities for where, why, how and what SMASH can be if the powers that be allow creative freedom and some room for play along the way. And, who, too - Kat McPhee is capable of more than we may have even glimpsed until now. After all, the first half of the first season seems to have given Ivy the majority of the big Marilyn songs, so we may more than safely assume (particularly since Derek has brought her back into the picture and Eileen was overheard building Karen up to potential investors in the Marilyn musical) that she will take an even more central role in the development of the show-within-the-show from here on out - Uma or no Uma. What that spells for Ivy remains to be known - yet, as many SMASH fans seem to be suggesting and anticipating, BOMBSHELL may provide the opportunity for both Karen and Ivy to get a chance in the spotlight as Norma Jean, Marilyn or a combination of the characters (maybe simultaneously).
No, "The Coup" did not hit all the right notes and give a flawless performance - the subplots involving Julia's family are always a downer and Ellis is an irritating distraction more often than not - but, in scenes like Eileen (Anjelica Huston) with her daughter - played by standout guest star Mamie Gummer - and husband - portrayed by love-to-hate-him recurring ex-husband Michael Cristofer - we get a glimpse of how good the drama could potentially be - consistently so. Always. Often, the failings magnify themselves because the peaks are so lofty and heavenly. In any event, SMASH gets better by the week as far as character development and the characters' motivations go - and the songs keep topping themselves (this week being the sole exception). So, the real question now seems to be: will SMASH ever really hit the stride that its most ardent and admiring fans feel, know and sense deep in our hearts that it can hit with the right dramatic and musical recipe in the future? It gets closer and closer by the week - tantalizingly, near-maddeningly so. Last night was no exception, but the expansiveness of the enterprise was enjoyable and satisfying in its way and at least let us know SMASH hasn't even played one hand yet, let alone shown us its cards. More songs next week, though, please, if we are making requests!
Speaking of what we have to look forward on SMASH coming up: Norbert Leo Butz, Marc Kudisch, and, as we see from the previews, Uma Thurman - and those are just the guest stars! What will next week bring insofar as the dramatic/musical balance and the subsequent slice of the show-within-the-show we have to sample? Only time will tell. All in all, if "The Coup" is any example whatsoever of the buoyancy and viability of SMASH as a series, then we can look forward to many more renewals for the series in years to come as long as it stays fresh, current and complete with the twists, turns and tunes we have come to expect from one of the best new shows on TV.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro