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Gray Areas: Take a trip into a musical

Gray Areas

Andy Gray

Except for Bruce Springsteen’s show, Broadway still is dark.

Local theaters are starting to gear up, but with the exception of Rust Belt Theater Company’s “Forbidden Youngstown,” those big musicals planned for 2021 are at least a month away.

What’s a music theater fan to do? Take a trip to “Schmigadoon!”

The Apple TV+ series debuting Friday will be catnip to those who love big, old-fashioned Broadway musicals. Those who roll their eyes at the dated and problematic tropes of the genre will find plenty to enjoy as well.

Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key star as Melissa and Josh, and the story quickly jumps from their meeting to three years later, when the couple is going on a relationship retreat in an attempt to save their crumbling connection.

They get lost in the woods and find themselves in Schmigadoon, a town that looks like it was created by a summer stock theater with a generous production budget and where the residents regularly break out into song.

At first they think they’ve stumbled upon a tourist trap like Colonial Williamsburg, but it’s a real trap — folks can only cross the bridge out of Schmigadoon with their true love, and the bridge says Melissa and Josh are not one of those couples.

Melissa loves old musicals, but doesn’t necessarily want to be stuck in one, even if local rapscallion Danny Bailey (Aaron Tveit) and the town doctor (Jaime Camil) are mighty cute. Josh hates musicals and will do anything to escape, even if it means crossing that bridge with every single woman in town.

Creators Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul have crafted a show that embraces the elements that make those old musicals so easy to enjoy and skewers the elements that haven’t aged well. In a few cases, they don’t hide their direct inspiration. In episode five Kristin Chenoweth sings a song called “Tribulation” that couldn’t be more like “Trouble” from “The Music Man” if it was sung by the ghost of Robert Preston.

But generally Paul takes the same approach as Adam Schlesinger did writing for the television series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” The songs’ reference points are noticeable, but they stand on their own. If a “Schmigadoon” soundtrack album isn’t in the works, it should be.

It helps that they have a cast of Broadway veterans singing these songs. In addition to Chenoweth (“Wicked”) and Tveit (“Moulin Rouge”), there’s Alan Cumming (“Cabaret”), Ariana DeBose (“Hamilton”), Ann Harada (“Avenue Q”) and Jane Krakowski (“Nine”).

Key was one of the better parts of Netflix’s adaptation of “The Prom,” and he again proves he is a capable musical theater performer and gives the material the comedic punch it needs.

With Lorne Michaels as an executive producer of “Schmigadoon!,” it’s easy to imagine he thought of the show as a post-“SNL” springboard for Strong. There were times in the early episodes that Strong’s performance felt like something more appropriate for an “SNL” sketch, but she becomes the emotional heart of the piece.

The only problem with “Schmigadoon!” is that it’s not a television show, it’s a movie musical.

The creators made some structural concessions to the format — each “episode” opens with a flashback to Melissa’s and Josh’s relationship that illuminates some of their problems — but this is a two-and-a-half-hour musical that’s been chopped into six 25-minute installments (minus credits).

I get it. TV shows seem to generate more buzz than movies these days. And for a streaming service like Apple TV+ that can’t compete with the sheer volume of product that Nextflix churns out, doling out “Schmigadoon!” and other series in weekly chunks gives the illusion of having more content.

But I sat down planning to watch the first episode or two and ended up watching the entire series in one sitting, like a musical. I don’t think watching it in weekly doses would make me appreciate it more.

The first two episodes debut Friday with the other four following once a week until Aug. 13. Whether one watches it weekly or waits to consume it whole, “Schmigadoon!” is a wonderful destination.

Andy Gray is the entertainment editor of Ticket. Write to him at agray@tribtoday.com.

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