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First Nighter: NBC's Smash Is No Such Thing, Leading-Lady Katharine McPhee Is

Posted: 02/ 3/2012 11:19 am

When Katharine McPhee was heading towards her number-two finish on the 2006 American Idol season -- and singing "Over the Rainbow" with full-blast passion at least twice -- it was as obvious as her Boston Conservatory past that the incipient diva's true destination was not pop-charts prominence but Broadway. And now it looks as if she's aimed directly there. Ironically, it's not in an actual Great White Way enterprise but as one of the stars in the new NBC television series about a B'way-bound musical.

She's landed a role in Smash, which is about -- if you haven't seen the boob-tube promos plugging its Feb. 6 kick-off the day after the Super Bowl XLVI kick-off -- a group of B'way vets and newbies readying a tuner based on Marilyn Monroe's life. More than that, McPhee has not only nailed the part of mid-Western transplant Karen Cartwright, but if the pilot is any indication, she's the best thing about the enterprise.

McPhee has everything the producers -- who include Steven Spielberg, frequent television musical purveyors Craig Zadan and Neil Meron and headwriter Theresa Rebeck -- had to be looking for. She's lovely to look at. She's wide-eyed but not to a cloying fault. She's as ripening fresh as the bananas that wannabe Karen may keep on her windowsill. And, needless to say, she sings like one of the indisputable best of the now many AI finalists.

(To remind viewers of her "Over the Rainbow" expertise, the pilot begins with her standing In limbo while again warbling the beloved 1939 Yip Harburg-Harold Arlen Oscar-winner. Though she's cut off in mid-classic, she later gets to chant Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" -- and beautifully -- in its entirety.)

While McPhee takes the top Smash performing honors, she's not the only worthwhile asset. Blond bombshell Megan Hilty as seasoned chorus member Ivy Lynn who emerges as Karen's major competition for the MM part -- largely because she's chummy with one of the show's creators -- has no end of oomph to peddle. Anjelica Huston plays producer Eileen Rand, who wants to get the expensive undertaking to opening night in a big hurry. She's always worth watching, partly because she never seems to age.

Moreover, the songs for the new series are by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who know how to write a rousing number. They did just that many times over for Hairspray. Plus there are several supporting players who ought to be seen more often on the home screen. Evidently brought in by astute Broadway casting director Bernard Telsey, they're stalwarts like Brian d'Arcy James and Christian Borle, who've earned the wider exposure after their long-haul build-up to stage prominence.

Unfortunately, McPhee, Hilty, Huston, Shaiman, Wittman, James and Borle have a gigantic obstacle to overcome. It's the "Smash" script that co-exec-producer and apparent series originator Rebeck has written. Represented at the moment on the Main Stem with her deficient Seminar and associated for some time with television police procedurals, Rebeck currently leads the Most Overrated Contemporary Playwright pack.

]With Smash, she does nothing to jeopardize her edge in that tight race. Throughout the frenzied script, she includes just about every cliché ever uttered on bringing a musical to fruition and, indeed, on simply living in today's world. If she's left any out, the likelihood is they'll clutter later segments. How to begin listing them is a challenge, but perhaps it's sufficient to say that at the end of a scene where producer Eileen and the husband she's divorcing can't agree on particulars of their settlement, Huston is required to fire off the line, "I'll see you in court."

The very idea of basing a musical on Marilyn Monroe's life -- because, songwriter-librettist Julia Houston (Deborah Messing) declares, the late icon was all about the need to be loved (yuck!) -- is tired, if not downright ludicrous. In the dialogue, dramatist Rebeck actually acknowledges that there's already been a Monroe-focused musical, Marilyn; An American Fable, a 1983 flopola. She doesn't mention an unsuccessful English try or Harvey Weinstein's recent comments that if his My Week With Marilyn flick is as successful as he hopes, he'd consider a musical adaptation for Katy Perry.

Nevertheless, Rebeck forgets the persuasive objection and goes ahead with having Julia and collaborator Tom Levitt (Borle) develop the notion, because, for one thing, at least two people have suggested to them that such a piece of theater could include a baseball number. "Then why not a Joe DiMaggio musical?" a thinking viewer could ask, although the number Shaiman and Wittman come up with has Marilyn issuing double entendres while chorus boys gyrate in baseball uniforms. It also features Hilty, in the eventually fully-staged number, looking like both Marilyn swiveling through "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes feature and Gwen Verdon chirping "Whatever Lola Wants" in Damn Yankees, big and small screens.

While underlining everything about musicals that much of the television audience has famously come to disdain -- and, it might be said, Super Bowl fans wouldn't be an immediately obvious target for -- Rebeck gives each principal a private-life story. There's the divorce Huston's Eileen is going through and an adoption Julia and husband Frank Houston (d'Arcy James) are trying to conclude. There's also a long-standing dislike Tom and potential director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) have for each other, which threatens to undermine the hoped-for but certain to-be-scuttled smooth pre-production and try-out periods. Sad to report, none of it is at all engaging, illuminating or original.

Nevertheless, there is the possibility that Smash will catch on. Viewers could decide it neatly fits the So-Bad-It's-Good category. Otherwise, Smash might have the bad fortune to close just as quickly as the above-mentioned Marilyn: An American Fable did. The great American musical-- experiencing something of a resurgence now with the broader public -- deserves a lot better than this.