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Theater Critic Scott Brown Reviews Smash’s Show-Within-the-Show for Week Two [UPDATED]

SMASH -- "Callbacks" Episode 102 -- Pictured: (center) Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright -- Photo by: Patrick Harbron/NBC

My colleague Rachel Shukert has already turned the firehose of her formidable wit on this week's Smash. As I did last week, I'll briefly assess the progress of Marilyn: The Musical, the series' slowly gestating show-within-a-show.

I'll leave aside the opening dream sequence where Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) warbles Blondie to an imaginary nightclub audience/Lost-esque full-cast reunion, basted in tasteful strip-club lighting. We begin with a reprise. (What is this? Marilyn We Roll Along? HA! HAHA! Heh. Hurm. Ahem. Sorry: I'll leave the Shuking to the Shuksperts.)

So yes, a reprise: Because you loved "Let Me Be Your Star," here it is again, reformulated as a ... well, not a reprise, because now it's opening the show. A preprise? A prologuelet? The posy of a ring? What do we call this reflective opening statement, exactly? Whatever it is, it features Norma Jean/Marilyn (first Karen, then Ivy, her rivy) standing center stage "in a pool of light." (Like most theatergoers, I'm a sucker for a pool of light.) Around her, phantom blondes spit spoken torments between the musical phrases. Your mom's crazy! Nobody loves you! But NJ/M resists! With help from Spielbergian camera wizardry, the choric gripe squad recedes and soon-to-be-Marilyn moves to the fore on a boogie board made of pure illumination. I think I like the song a little better at this tempo, in this style: gives those long phrases a chance to breathe and doesn't force them to carry a whole lot of driving rhythmic energy. I'd give a nod to the music, but nose-wrinkle to Julia Houston's (and director Michael Mayer's) mise en scene, which feels pretentious in the extreme. ("We begin ... in the vast emptiness of space! The stars are cold and distant ... LIKE THE LOVE OF GOD!") I feel like I can hear the concept being dictated in a soft German accent. Nein goot!

Later, as Karen hoofs deeper into the audition process, she's asked to perform in a suddenly written/suddenly fully staged and choreographed number called "The Twentieth Century Fox (Mambo)." (Parentheses mine.) It's the only totally realized original this episode. (So far, the weekly pattern's looking like this: one fleshed-out original song, one partly realized original song or reprise, and two big covers.) This mambo is more "Under the Sea" than "Dance at the Gym" — a frothy style spread that uses another big beat in Marilyn's life (her early, Norma Jean–era screen test for 20th Century Fox) to blow out a number that's easily detachable from a larger story. (Probable because — as we learned conclusively this week from Julia and Tom's tiny, sparsely note-carded corkboard — there's still no larger story, no structure, and no real concept.) The mambo is suitably energetic and, once again, acrobatically choreographed by Josh Bergasse. The much-remarked-upon blankness of Kat McPhee is dampener, however: Her eyes go a little dead ("like doll's eyes!"), and her whole soul seems to wink out, as if covered by some protective nictating membrane. The peak of the song takes her atop a spinning desk, where she looks mighty uncomfortable — I wonder why Bergasse put her in a wide, almost linebackerish stance for the number's most indelible pose.

The conceit of the song is: Norma J's, in for a Fox screen test in the mid-forties, has been asked to foxtrot, but she breaks into a mambo instead. ("To make the big boys hire me / Please make that rhythm fiery.") We jump into a full makeover number, in the tradition of "Rainbow High," and, in places, just as lyrically strained as that Tim Rice contortionist act. This number trades coquettishly in lyrical hedges that really push my buttons: accenting the word the to keep the rhythm, rhyming obsessively and ostentatiously, strenuously saying nothing and saying it repeatedly, and contracting words to cheat metrical death (e.g., fac'try for factory). Nowhere is this summed up better than the song's final lines: "Now I'm a blonde / but I ain't so dumb / Hollywood will be under my thumb / I'll change partners until I become / Your 20th Century Fox ... Mambo!" She's going to become their 20th Century Fox Mambo? How ... metaphysical! I still await a song from "Marilyn" that I can fall for, like Arthur Miller at Shiksa Mart. And I hold to my theory that said song won't arrive until somebody figures out what Marilyn is actually about.

We close pleasantly with "Crazy Dreams (Randy Newman Remix)," sung by Ivy in her triumph over Karen. (A triumph, we must imagine, will be short-lived. Or else this was a really short series.) I never realized I liked this sunny li'l Carrie Underwood song until arranger Andy Zulla* Newmanized it, stripping out the pop-country beat, and giving it a rich undercarriage with lots of oaky, folky piano-chord suspensions. A subtle nod to Newman's work on Cop Rock, perhaps? In a show where showbiz inside jokes are half the raison d'etre, I wouldn't put it past 'em.

* This post has been corrected, as originally I suggested or stated outright that Marc Shaiman oversees all music on the show, including the cover songs. This is entirely untrue. Credit is due Music Supervisor Jim Black; the cover songs (other than "Beautiful," in the pilot) are arranged and produced by Zulla.

Photo: Patrick Harbron/NBCUniversal