Review: SMILE Gets Its Teeth Back
The 1975 dark comedy, Smile, may not be a cinema classic, but its satirical look at the hypocrisy and cut-throat competition behind the wholesome image of a small-town beauty pageant has gathered a substantial cult following through the years.
And when Howard Ashman and Marvin Hamlisch began adapting the film for the Broadway stage, that arch sense of humor remained a significant part of the text. The exact reasons why they subsequently rewrote the show into a more wholesome, apple-cheeked spectacle is a part of Broadway folklore that has been keeping the Sardi's rumor mill spinning ever since its November 1986 opening and its closing six weeks later.
I was there for one of Smile's eleven preview performances and will concur that, although professionally done, the show was a bland bore. One song, "Disneyland," where the main character sings of the comfort she feels from that fantasy world, despite knowing it's all fake, has since earned some degree of popularity among the piano bar and cabaret set.
But soon after the last set pieces were carted out of the Lunt-Fontanne, the authors went back to the script and restored much of their original text as well as adding new material. That's the version of the show that has been leased out for subsequent productions and that is now receiving a splendidly fun concert mounting from Musicals Tonight!
As is the company's custom, the production is staged with spirit and simplicity by director/choreographer Thomas Sabella-Mills. While the original Broadway company boasted a cast of 27, with 16 young women playing pageant contestants, music director/vocal arranger David B. Bishop gets some beautiful blends with half as many ladies playing competitors in the Musicals Tonight! cast of 18.
Set in 1985 during the week leading up to the California finals of the Young American Miss Pageant, the best realized scenes involve ensemble musical sequences (similar to what Hamlisch and his collaborators did so well in A Chorus Line), that quickly cover the multiple emotions during rehearsals and preparations.
The plot focuses on two main relationships. Doria (Jenna Pastuszek, who sings "Disneyland" with a strong belt and appealing sincerity) believes she has no chance to win the pageant when she doesn't win the talent portion preliminary so she tries to teach her roommate, Robin (a sweet and shy Patti-Lee Meringo), the scholastic winner, the tricks of the business.
The lesser-developed plot involves the marital woes of pageant coordinator Brenda (a perky Jeanette Fitzpatrick) and her head judge husband, Big Bob (a beautifully singing Tom Lucca). Ashman just never found a way to make them as interesting as the contestants.
Francheska Gomez is delightfully peppy as a Mexican-American contestant who gets the score's comic highlight, a musical cooking lesson the character created as her talent competition entry, and Sarah Ziegler has a remarkable way of sneering through a smile as the racist contestant trying to sabotage her. Funny turns are also supplied by Russell Saylor as a droll choreographer and Christopher De Angelis as the cheesy local celeb hosting the pageant.
Smile still has its foibles but the version of the show being performed by Musicals Tonight! is a big improvement over what played on Broadway and the charming bare-bones production is skillfully played by a talented and enthusiastic company.
Photos by Mick Andreano: Top: Jenna Pastuszek; Bottom: Jeanette Fitzpatrick and Tom Lucca.