SOUND OFF: SMASH's Boozy Bombshells
"What we did together exploded my whole life like a bombshell," a rain-soaked Julia related to former paramour with whom she recently rekindled a romance, Michael (Broadway notable Will Chase; the former Joe DiMaggio of the Marilyn Monroe musical at the core). It was a statement further qualified by saying, "but I'm not letting anyone say it was not my fault." And so goes the trajectory of SMASH so far, more or less - trepidatious and unsure as often as rhapsodically exhilarating and exuberantly entertaining, at almost equal turns; falling short more often than not in many of the melodramatic subplots, excelling with the effortless ease of a surefire hit in the musical sequences and rehearsal scenes of the gestating musical central to every aspect of the series as a whole. Recently revealed in this very column late last month by SMASH stars Megan Hilty and Anjelica Huston, the confirmed title of the show-within-the-show on SMASH is BOMBSHELL, which is all too an apt a title for a musical arising amidst the war-torn landscape of Broadway in the soapy bathtub stew with everything but the kitchen sink itself that is the universe of SMASH, for better and worse - particularly insofar this group of drama queens and kings is concerned. Such is the nature of SMASH itself - in embracing its flaws it may find its ultimate salvation. Amp up the camp and dial down the drama; pump up the music and pull the shade on secondary subplots; and, please, evict Ellis. Sometimes it takes a few shots to hit the target and every at bat cannot be a homerun hit, but Episode 9 gave us some pleasing development to plotlines that could have fallen by the wayside on a lesser series. Plus, it's difficult to manage to wander too far off of the beaten path of the Great White Way in an episode featuring New York Post gossip columnist Michael Riedel and Broadway superstar Norbert Leo Butz!
Chorus Girl Or Priest
Displaying some of the finest dramatic storytelling and most complex and layered acting performances of the season, "Hell On Earth" was yet another change-up from the expected in the universe of this consistently engaging and appreciably surprising musical dramedy series. Debra Messing and Brian D'Arcy James were afforded their strongest material to date and the dramatically rife, torrid affair between Julia and Michael received its pay-off at long last, with the oft-faltering home-life story of Julia and her family receiving a satisfying exploration where it most surely fell short in earlier episodes. While the heightened focus on the show business aspects of Broadway is always better for SMASH overall, last night's exploration of the relationships of the creative team and would-be stars of the show - particularly the Times Square-set scenes involving Ivy (Megan Hilty) and Karen (Katharine McPhee) making temporary, if inebriated, peace - was a respite from the usual, if nothing else (not unlike Episode 3 and last week's post-workshop ep). Hilty consistently impresses week after week with her tricky character and McPhee makes the most of a somewhat by the numbers dimwit of a wide-eyed Midwestern girl out looking for fame and fortune in the big city. Anjelica Huston's delicate and nuanced portrayal of the female half of newly-separated and much-respected producing team The Rands was given a shot in the arm with her storyline involving upcoming guest star Uma Thurman as the new bid for the title role of Marilyn in the musical, even if it had to come at the price of more exposer of fan-detested Ellis (Jaime Cepero). Speaking of the new Marilyn: will Uma deliver the goods? Hilty and Huston confirmed to me themselves that the upcoming Bollywood production number featuring Uma and the rest of the cast is SMASH at its most "epic" and over-the-top, so we certainly have at least that to look forward to in the wake of an increasing assortment of guest stars and new personalities introduced into the SMASH-scape, seemingly at the loss of real behind-the-scenes scenes as we saw more often in the first half of the season. The real question is: can the series sustain it all - the venturing out of the true theatre universe and the introduction of multiple guest stars and a half-dozen or more subplots per episode? The answer, at least at this point, nine episodes in, seems to be: yes - pretty much.
While Hilty and McPhee's treatment of Rihanna's "Cheers (Drink To That)" was a welcome musical reunion of the two SMASH headliners - lest we forget, this was actually their first true all-out duet since the pilot's grand finale, the unforgettable Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman gem "Let Me Be Your Star" - the standout sequence of this episode was unquestionably two-time Tony Award-winner Norbert Leo Butz in his guest starring role as the lead of the other show-within-the-show on SMASH - another Julia/Tom collaboration, HEAVEN ON EARTH; currently running on Broadway at what appears to be the Shubert Theater in the parallel reality of SMASH universe - in the tantalizing glimpses we were at last given of HEAVEN ON EARTH (similarly scored by Shaiman/Wittman). And, although Ivy Lynn's VALLEY OF THE DOLLS-esque pill-popping antics may have marred the otherwise expected precision of the exciting and glitzy sequence (the set taking inspiration from FOLLIES and SUNSET BOULEVARD, particularly given the grand staircase and Ziegfeldian accoutrement, most obviously, I would say), in "The Higher You Get, The Farther The Fall", Butz gave the gospel-flecked and Motown-tinged roof-raiser his trademark flair - in the role of what appears to be St. Peter - with his flashy turn at the gaudy, cloud-strewn pearly gates. Perhaps we shall be lucky enough to catch another glimpse of HEAVEN ON EARTH in the remaining five episodes of Season One, or, better yet, the exploration of the development of that show in an upcoming season - a flashback episode or two perchance? Indeed, Episode 9 was focused primarily on the character and plot development, but, in addition to the aforementioned songs we were given yet another tiny taste of the truly titanic musical abilities of Brian D'Arcy James (he made his Broadway debut in TITANIC, after all) whose character may wind up being a closeted musician or performer of some sort after all given his two songs in as many weeks. Seemingly out and proud against his more natural public displays of affection inclinations at a Republican fundraiser, Tom (Christian Borle) continues to make an affable and likeable portrayal out of what could be a whiny and self-absorbed non-entity of a character. Nonetheless, it must be said that this composing team comprised of Tom and Julia seems to spend a heck of a lot of time away from the pad of paper, pen and piano!
So, let's hope the coming weeks bring us back to the best aspects of SMASH - the rehearsal room and a musical being built from the ground up right before our very eyes and ears. SMASH is good when it engages our emotions and it never fails to be entertaining, but has proven that it can achieve greatness when it engages our ears and hearts - and that almost always only happens in the musical sequences. The formula is still being perfected and the next few weeks promise to be the best we have seen yet. Bombs away - and BOMBSHELL, too!