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The Boston Globe

Arts

TELEVISION REVIEW

‘Smash’ offers backstage pass to Broadway musical

WILL HART/NBC

In “Smash,’’ NBC’s new musical drama series, Megan Hilty portrays Ivy Lynn, a young actress hungry for her shot at stardom.

When you get right down to it, “Smash’’ is not a single TV show, but two. And one of them has got to go.

So let’s play director, and approach it as if we need to choose between a pair of performers auditioning for the same role in a Broadway musical. Which, as it happens, is the main story line of the massively promoted “Smash,’’ premiering tonight at 10 on Channel 7.

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You there, the “Smash’’ that’s awash in soapsuds and a tendency toward cliché? Feel free to exit, stage left, and take your glitzy packaging and your plot contrivances and your “Glee’’-style gimmicks with you.

But the other “Smash’’? The one that tries to capture the qualities that make theater special and explain why so many talented people devote their lives to it in the face of long odds and short money? The one that sheds some light on the inner workings of a weirdly compelling industry - the business of show - and on the creative process and quirky personalities at the heart of it all?

Ah, now we’re talking. That “Smash’’ deserves a callback.

So which “Smash’’ will prevail? A lot depends on series creator and executive producer Theresa Rebeck, a highly regarded playwright who wrote the first three episodes. (They were directed by Michael Mayer, who won a Tony Award for “Spring Awakening’’ and helmed the scorching Broadway production of “American Idiot’’ that came to Boston a couple of weeks ago.)

If Rebeck can resist pressure from ratings-starved NBC and try to keep “Smash’’ authentically rooted (or as authentic as network television can get) in the idiosyncratic particulars of musical theater, the show may deliver on its promise.

It provides a juicy showcase for the one and only Anjelica Huston (as an imposing but financially beleaguered producer) and gives the appealing Debra Messing a welcome return ticket to prime time, as a songwriter drawn back to Broadway while enmeshed in the struggle to adopt a baby.

Yet there are unsettling signals that “Smash’’ is not immune to the temptation to drift into predictable, generic, who-slept-with-whom story lines, or, like the aforementioned “Glee,’’ to use dialogue as not much more than a bridge to the next snappy production number.

Originally the brainchild of Steven Spielberg (who is an executive producer), “Smash’’ revolves around the attempt to create a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe - and to find the right performer to play her.

It boils down to a competition between two showbiz archetypes: Karen Cartwright, a young unknown from the heartland trying to make it in the big city, who is played by former “American Idol’’ contestant Katharine McPhee; and Ivy Lynn, hungry for her shot at stardom after paying a decade’s worth of dues in the chorus, portrayed by Broadway performer Megan Hilty.

While Ivy, a zaftig blonde, bears a much closer physical resemblance to Monroe, Karen just might possess more of that elusive thing known as star quality, and both aspirants boast impressive song-and-dance skills. However, and alas, it’s evident right away that those will not be the only criteria used by director-choreographer Derek Wills (Jack Davenport). This is where “Smash’’ takes a detour into formulaic territory.

The show works much better when it gives us a glimpse into its distinctive milieu. For instance, in tonight’s episode, songwriters Julia Houston (Messing) and Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) are horrified when Ivy’s demo performance of the only tune they’ve written for the new musical is posted online (thanks to a snoopy assistant with a cellphone video camera). The still-unborn musical immediately becomes the subject of commentary in a theater blog, with unexpected consequences for the songwriters.

Obviously the scene illustrates how hard it is for creative teams to keep a curtain of privacy around the early phases of development in the Internet era. But it’s also a reminder that if the creators of “Smash’’ more fully mine the unique ecology of theater itself, with all the strange and surprising characters who inhabit it, the show’s title could be more than wishful thinking.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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