'Smash' opening-night review: Reasons to root for Marilyn, the musical?

Smash premiered on Monday night right after the most agreeable lead-in NBC could possibly muster: The Voice, thus having musical-reality television lead into musical-fiction television. There’s been a lot of TV-industry reporting about how many millions of dollars NBC has spent promoting Smash, and I’ve done some speculating of my own about whether or not Smash will become a ratings hit. But let’s put all the biz stuff aside and concentrate on the show itself: Did it deliver?

Based on the premiere, which did the Internet version of playing out-of-town try-outs on NBC’s website, I think you’d have to say this was one damn lively show with a lot of promise. I’m a sucker for behind-the-scenes stories, for how-they-do-it productions, for catty exposes of how dirty one’s hands must get to create a gleaming-bright spectacle. So even though the last Broadway show I saw was Jersey Boys and I sat there thinking, “Why are people on their feet applauding this when you can listen to Frankie Valli in the privacy of your home without the extra layer of schmaltz?,” I was swept up by most of what Smash was trying to sell during its premiere.

For starters, I really enjoyed the performances of Debra Messing and Christian Borle, the pair creating the Marilyn Monroe musical that gives Smash its curvy dramatic arc. As Julia and Tom, Messing and Borle communicate in a convincing shorthand, as both professional collaborators and as longtime pals. They conveyed through glances, intonations, and quick-tempo speech the amusement, excitement, and tension involved in colluding with another person to make a dream — and a moneymaker — come to life. The snappy density of their patter even overcame one of Smash‘s potential weaknesses: The idea that a Marilyn musical is a good one. (In what we foolishly call real life, a new Monroe show would smell like a stinker, an inevitable slog through the wearyingly familiar MM touchstones: gamey starlet; up-skirted movie star; inferiority-complex-plagued sexpot; unsuitable multiple-marriage material; sad exit.) The only time I was truly bored (even contemplating Katharine McPhee’s limp phrasing is an intriguing exercise) was when any character recited a fact from Monroe’s life as though it was a revelation, or when we saw anyone “studying up” on Monroe movies (catch up on Monkey Business on your own time, people!).

But this is one time when the device of a show-within-a-show doesn’t necessarily depend upon the within-show being very good. Indeed, one of the most intriguing options Smash has is to make Marilyn: The Musical (working title?) something of a botch. That would be fascinating TV, too.

Julia and Tom are Smash‘s soul. The series is being sold, however, as a competition between the actresses competing to be cast as Marilyn: American Idol kewpie doll Katharine McPhee and Broadway belter Megan Hilty as Karen and Ivy, respectively. Smash is good enough to convince you that Julia, Tom, and priapic director Derek (Jack Davenport) see advantages to either girl; as the premiere boiled it down, Karen captures the “girl next door” allure, while Ivy embodies the lush flirtiness. The friction between Tom and Derek is also briskly combustible — it’s heartening to see someone on television, as it is in those rare moments in one’s own life, express the wish that ambitious, talented people might also, occasionally or through a sense of sustained decency, be nice.

Admirably ignoring the prevalent notion that prime-time viewers not tuned to CBS don’t want to see anyone older than 40 on their flat-screens, Smash also gave plenty of time to Anjelica Huston’s producer Eileen. This character is especially well-conceived, in that we know Huston can play a ball-breaker in her sleep (and has, in movies like Ever After and Buffalo ’66), but to make her a desperate tough nut — Eileen having to prove herself, well into middle age, as bankable, as though she was a producer-ingenue, to backers — well, this is a role that gives Huston full vent to a wider range of emotions than she’s had in most of her recent vehicles. But tossing drinks in the face of the husband she’s divorcing (Michael Cristofer), is a running gag that only works for a very short while.

The weakest story lines? The one that involves the adoption process that makes soggy the home scenes between Julia and her husband, all the more regrettable given how talented actor Brian d’Arcy James is. And any time Derek tries to seduce Karen or Ivy. (Although I do ask, in the interest of drumming up ratings, why the hell did NBC cut its promo to show the punch line of one such seduction — “Not gonna happen,” shortly after McPhee sang the least sexy Marilyn-singing-“Happy Birthday”-to-JFK-surrogate ever — when, all reservations aside, I would imagine there might be some viewers who’d like to have seen something “happen” with McPhee?)

That said, I’m in for Smash‘s entire construction of the Marilyn musical. How about you?

Twitter: @kentucker

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