'Schmigadoon!' is for lovers of musicals or Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong fans

by 24USATVJuly 17, 2021, 6 a.m. 20
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"Schmigadoon!" is for superfans of musicals. But even if you prefer to keep an ironic distance from any theatrical experience that involves breaking into song with backup dancers, it's also worth watching.

The new AppleTV+ series, which debuts Friday, speaks to America’s complicated relationship with the art form. “Hamilton” proved in the biggest way possible that musicals still can be relevant and ground-breaking. Yet Broadway is strewn with so-so adaptations of hit movies (“Pretty Woman: The Musical” anyone?) and bio-plays about superstars like Cher and Tina Turner that essentially are greatest-hits concerts with dialogue.

“Schmigadoon!” understands this love-it, already-forgot-about it dichomoty in ways that will encourage even cynics to tap their toes to the melodies. It also smartly puts two versatile, appealing actors at its center: “Saturday Night Live” regular Cecily Strong, aka fake Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and Detroit’s own Keegan-Michael Key, a comedy icon who easily could be a big-screen leading man in dramas if Hollywood had more vision.

Strong and Key play Melissa and Josh, doctors in contemporary New York City whose romance is hitting that comfortable, but boring spot. To reignite the sparks now missing, they go backpacking and wander off the path and right into a magical place whose residents work, dress and behave as if they’re living inside a Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe production from the 1940s.

If you recognize the title’s spin on the 1947 classic “Brigadoon,” you probably will be familiar with all of the shows that are lovingly parodied here. If you don’t, you still might enjoy a premise that evokes every TV series that has attempted a musical episode, a device that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" used to best effect.

Only in "Schmigadoon!," it takes a while for Melissa and Josh to realize they're not at a Colonial Williamsburg-type attraction for theater buffs. This is more like an alternate universe for theater kids.

And the songs! There is a peppy one about the town of Schmigadoon, where the time frame seems to be somewhere in the early 1900s of “The Music Man” and “Oklahoma!” (although with modern touches like the color-blind casting that Melissa applauds). There is a peppy ode to the old-timey dish "Corn Pudding", a song from a bad-boy carnival barker that echoes Billy Bigelow's "Soliloquy" from “Carousel” and another ode to doing your best that's performed by a schoolteacher and her tap-dancing students.

The piece-de-resistance, though, is the graphic lesson in human reproduction that Strong's character delivers with a parody of “Do-Re-Mi” from “The Sound of Music.” All those mentions of actual body parts would make Maria apoplectic.

The plot’s twist is that Melissa and Josh must find true love in order to cross the bridge back to the real world. That is something they once had but neglected to nurture. In flashback scenes that feel like snippets from a great rom-com, Strong and Key are seen falling for each other in a flood of affection and then dealing with the frustrations every couple faces once things get realistic. Those moments are so tender and relatable, you'll wish there was a separate TV series about them exclusively.

Created by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio from the "Despicable Me" animated films and executive-produced by Lorne Michaels, "Schmigadoon!" has attracted heavyweight Tony winners and nominees to its cast. Aaron Tveit, from Broadway's "Next to Normal" and "Moulin Rouge!," brings a delicious swagger to his role as the carnival barker ready to sweep Strong off her feet. Alan Cumming, who played the emcee in a hit "Cabaret" revival, is the wistful mayor who’s hiding a secret not mentioned in '40s musicals.

Ariana DeBose of "Hamilton" is a delight as a dedicated schoolmarm who isn't so fond of her town's judgmental habits. And "Wicked" star Kristen Chenoweth, who portrays a sour one-woman morals squad, gives a showstopping, one-take performance of a song inspired by "Ya Got Trouble" from "The Music Man." Her bravura delivery deserves an honorary Tony of its own.

The best part of “Schmigadoon” is how it finds laughs in the way old musicals are so sugarcoated and outdated about things like gender roles. During a bouncy number in which a male dancer playfully spanks his female partner, Strong’s Melissa is appalled and says: “That’s not OK, unless it’s consensual.”

Melissa also is the voice of awareness in a scene with Jane Krakowski, who does a takeoff on the Baroness from “The Sound of Music.” As Krakowski sings about her fate of never getting the man, Strong says, “It’s never explicitly stated, but I think you’re a Nazi.”

Josh, meanwhile, confronts his own musical conundrums when his search for true love leads to a potential shotgun wedding, a revelation that could put one character in the path of Chenowith's wrath, and some group singing about "crossing that bridge" (when all he really wants is a return to his former life without a soundtrack).

More:Keegan-Michael Key shares pivotal moment in Detroit in new podcast

"Schmigadoon!" has gorgeous sets and costumes in addition to its sharp take on how musicals have evolved along with society. And with theaters only now beginning the reopening process after being shut down for a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a timely reminder of what we've been missing in live entertainment.

So take note, producers. If someone decides to combine all six episodes and do a stage version, there are plenty of us who would buy a ticket and a “Corn Pudding” souvenir T-shirt.

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