Ending on a nod to Michael Bennett's heart-stopping coup de theatre Act One Finale for DREAMGIRLS - with the button of Karen (Katharine McPhee)'s exquisitely and evocatively emotional "Never Give All The Heart" giving way to a grand diva entrance for the highly anticipated debut of special SMASH guest star Uma Thurman, who took the applause (and generated even more awe for the moment, in turn) in stride, literally, as she walked into the room - last night's "The Understudy" episode of NBC's hit musical dramedy series SMASH was one of the strongest episodes since the first few, with three new outstanding Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman songs to relish as well as Megan Hilty's sensitive cover of Kelly Clarkson's "Breakaway". In addition to the mega-wattage jolt of the final few moments provided by PULP FICTION and KILL BILL movie icon Thurman - who we will see (and hear) much more from in the coming weeks - we were also treated to another new multi-arc guest star in the guise of Tony Award-winning LES MIZ and CATS lead Terrence Mann. "The Understudy" had a central focus on many of the stronger dramatic, thematic and musical touchstones of the series so far, and, with even a cursory consideration of cumulative content to date it is clear to witness that we are seeing major pay-offs for many story arcs and plot elements buried as far back as the stupendous pilot episode. Indeed, with Christian Borle, Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee all given a big musical moment, the plot and music were drawn together pleasingly and provocatively - particularly in the aforementioned crowning achievement of "Never Give All The Heart"; perhaps the finest ballad from BOMBSHELL, the Marilyn Monroe show-within-the-series, that has been presented on SMASH yet. Each week, the elements we enjoy most seem to be amplified while the lesser subject matter is strengthened by new plot developments and enhanced perspective we now have due to the various circumstances concerning the cast of characters and everything we have experienced so far. Let's go one by one through the dramatis personae of the major characters and see where we have ended up since the pilot as we head into the final third of SMASH Season One.
The Kisses Come Free
Karen and Dev (Raza Jaffrey)'s relationship has reached an impasse due to Dev's jealously and pent-up guilt over his own inadequacies and neglecting of truth over the past few weeks, with his increasingly close liaison with a work colleague heating up as Dev cracks up before our eyes - and beats up Derek (Jack Davenport) in the process. Derek seems to be more bi-polar than ever, blowing up in rehearsals at naïve theatrical newbie Karen only to make a late-night stop at her apartment to apologize for his inappropriate romantic advances months ago - the "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" private audition sequence from the pilot, if we're keeping count. Derek's complicated and somewhat surprisingly ongoing courtship with Ivy Lynn continues, yet it has become evident that the character of Ivy becomes less likable when she is not the center of attention and showing off her considerable chops onstage as Marilyn, but Hilty is making it work nonetheless. Undoubtedly, Karen's characterization of the highly sought lead role of the show-within-the-show is a valid and intriguing one - particularly when taking into account the story set-up of the entire enterprise and how it is playing out week by week, and, furthermore, last night's tantalizing glimpse into a more Norma Jean characterization of Marilyn for the Arthur Miller marriage segments, providing the aforementioned new series highlight, "Never Give All The Heart" - which was based on an actual favorite poem of Marilyn's (by Yeats), as described in the elegant lyrics (to match the sumptuously sung, yet sparsely adorned gem) - Ivy seems ideal for the role as written. Doesn't she? Perhaps we should make that: Ivy seems ideal for the show as written so far. Destiny seems to deem that BOMBSHELL somehow contain them both.
As for the songwriting and producing side of the show-within-the-show on SMASH, Eileen (Anjelica Huston) grows by leaps and bounds by the week in her determination to break out on her own and produce BOMBSHELL independantly - and, it seems that she shall arrive at her goal with some resulting romance on the side, as well. Additionally, Terrence Mann is a marvelous addition as a wild rocker investor who, we can hope, will be performing some musical material in future episodes. Given his superb pedigree, we should be so lucky given what could potentially be! As for the composer and librettist/lyricist of BOMBSHELL, Tom has reached a roadblock in his rocky relationship with the ill-fitting but well-meaning Republican lawyer, though it seems that Julia (Debra Messing) needs him now more than ever - especially in the wake confiding in him about her dissolving relationship with her husband and touch-and-go moments with her son, who she continually acts irrationally around and deceives. Julia is one of the show's most problematic characters with many moments that may be difficult to sympathize with for many members of, if not most, of the audience at large. Despite that, Messing brings an urgency and cageyness to the character that makes much of the harder-to-swallow material go down as if drenched in honey and molasses. While the saccharine musical title song finale of an amateur production of THREE ON A MATCH gave us a chance to see the start of Tom and Julia's collaboration and what their quaint early work sounded like and how it has been received in the community theaters around the country since its debut a decade ago (and maybe we will even see more of it in future episodes and seasons), the sweet moment was shattered by Julia's all-consuming and all-too-selfish mid-life/mid-marriage/mid-musical crisis. Speaking of which, does Julia even attend regular rehearsals since the separation started (the movie star's supposed debut for investors notwithstanding)? Julia or not, Tom stood in for Darryl Zanuck and gave us another series highlight in the form of Zanuck's high-energy steam room stunner of a production number which was enlivened even further by some of the show's most inventive and unique staging and choreography we have seen (which is saying something in itself). In direct contrast to the style of "Never Give All The Heart", Borle surely sold the razzamatazz and rat-a-tat-tat routine implicit in this characterization of the real-life film titan elemental in the advancement of Marilyn's career and made an enchanting musical impression at long, long last. Who shall we see take on the role of Zanuck in the Boston tryout production of BOMBSHELL come the season finale in a few weeks? For that matter, who will be portraying Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio? We will have to stay tuned to see!
As each week proves, SMASH is at its best in its musical moments - particularly those that occur in the rehearsal room - and last night's "The Understudy" episode offered us not one, but two new absolute series high performance pieces from BOMBSHELL thanks to Karen's breathy Norma Jean ballad and Tom's zippy Zanuck showstopper - and Hilty's "Breakaway" and accompanying NYC montage wasn't half bad, either - and we have many more such enticements to look forward to in the coming weeks as we come ever closer to the big Boston bow. Broadway will have to wait for Season Two, alas, but, as the series so far has proved, much of the fun is getting all the way home. SMASH seems to hit it farther out of the park almost every week.