'Smash' Review: It's That Damn Good

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Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee

You don’t have to like show tunes to enjoy NBC’s Smash. Its dramatic content alone is enough to keep you tuning in. But if you’re a lifelong theater geek (guilty as charged) those same musical numbers turn mere like into full-fledged adoration.

Yes, the pilot episode of Smash was that good. In a nutshell, it’s a very well-produced prime time soap opera, with a little singing and dancing thrown in.  If you’re not a fan of the Great White Way (and if not, what’s wrong with you?), you’d still be hard-pressed not to enjoy all the behind-the-scenes show business reveals, from cattle call auditions to casting couches.

The show centers around a group of actors, directors, lyricists, playwrights and producers mounting a Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Since Marilyn is a hot commodity again, this is a smart choice.

And in one short pilot episode, the showrunners (Steven Spielberg is an executive producer) managed to also successfully introduce some intriguing, and potentially deliciously complicated storylines. We met lyricist Julia (Debra Messing), who is trying to adopt a baby with her long-suffering husband Frank (Brian d’Arcy James). Equally intriguing is Julia’s writing partner Tom (Christian Borle) who has an axe to grind with the show’s director Derek. He’s also nursing a crush on his new assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero), who may, or may not, be gay himself (And whom also leaks material from the still-being-written-musical onto the Internet).

There’s also an interesting little love triangle already brewing with Broadway ingénue Karen (Katharine McPhee), her current devoted boyfriend Dev (MI-5’s Raza Jaffrey), and the brilliant cad of a director, Derek (Pirates of the Caribbean’s Jack Davenport). In the premiere, Derek lures Karen to his NYC apartment, under the guise of helping Karen perfect her callback audition. But once there, he makes it clear he’d like Karen to ‘audition’ in more ways than one. While she turns him down this time, I suspect more sparks with these two down the line.

The casting of Smash is also excellent, with the possible exception of Debra Messing. She’s a little too, um, enthusiastic. It’s difficult to watch her and not expect to see Will Truman pop out behind a door. But the rest of the cast is uniformly great. In particular, Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty; playing the two Marilyn wannabes Karen and Ivy; and Jack Davenport as womanizing director Derek Wills are significant standouts. McPhee is luminous in her role and if Monroe’s secret weapon was charisma, McPhee certainly shares it.

What’s even better, there are more great additions to the cast coming in subsequent episodes, including a multi-episode arc by actress Uma Thurman.

Finally, this is a show with singing and dancing. And if your entire show premise is Broadway musicals, you better have actors that can sing.  Both McPhee and Hilty are powerhouse vocalists and they absolutely own any song they sing. Even if you’re not a musical theater aficionado, you can’t help but marvel at their sheer talent.  

Before its premiere, Smash endured a lot of comparisons to Glee – but they’re nothing alike, other than both utilizing song to convey some of their message. It’s apple and oranges, and I sincerely hope Smash is given the opportunity to be judged on its own merit.

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  • suzanne

    I also loved the show!  I was looking forward to it like no other show; with Steven Spielberg, the fabulous cast, and the great previews, I didn’t know if it would actually be as good as it was claiming to be. However it was even better than I had hoped!  Katherine McPhee was spellbinding.  Love, love, love this new show!!!!