‘SNL’ star Cecily Strong knows it’s funny. Apple’s new musical shows off its other talents

In “Schmigadoon!”, A musical about musical theater starting a six-episode airing Friday on Apple TV +, Cecily Strong and Keegan Michael-Key play Melissa and Josh, whose spray relationship has brought them to the woods, bag back on a “path of sacred love” where they are supposed to meet. It has been established that she is the one who thinks things need to be fixed, and it is he who agrees with them as they are. Surely you have met or been a part of this couple.

They get lost. It starts raining. A bridge appears in the mist, and when they cross it, like Dorothy above the rainbow, they emerge from gray reality into a vividly fabricated soundstage world. The road they are on (brick, if not yellow) leads them to Schmigadoon, a hamlet from the turn of the last century, where they find themselves in the middle of an introductory production number, like when Harold Hill walked in for the first time in River City, Iowa, in “The Music Man”.

They initially take it not for a magical kingdom but for a magical kingdom, a kind of immersive tourist experience. But when they try to leave and find that the city road always leads back to the city, Martin Short appears for about 20 seconds, dressed as a leprechaun (filed from “Finian’s rainbow” presumably), to explicitly state the show’s premise: true love is the only thing that will get them across the bridge, and “until you find it, you must stay / Where life is a musical every. days”.

Josh is unhappy; Mélissa is interested.

“You know how much I hate musicals,” he says. “People don’t just sing in real life.”

“You seem to be okay with the magic hammers coming back when you call them out,” she replies.

In terms of production, this is not the time for amateurs. Backed up by a star-studded cast of bona fide New York theater veterans who will be familiar to many who have never been to the theater, including Ariana DeBose (the original “Hamilton” ball), Kristin chenoweth (the original Glinda in “Wicked”), Jane krakowski (” Stars light “), Aaron Tveit (“Moulin Rouge!”), Ann Harada (“Avenue Q”), Dove Cameron (“Clueless”) and Alan Cumming (“Cabaret”). Fred Armisen, who briefly overlaps in the cast of “Saturday Night Live”, is also there – “Schmigadoon!” is a production of Lorne Michaels – just like Jaime Camil, of “Jane the Virgin”.

Barry sonnenfeld (“Men in Black”) produced; the great Bo Welch (“Beetlejuice”), who has worked with Sonnenfeld on “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and elsewhere, is the set designer. They favor a frontal approach that turns the screen into a proscenium scene, emphasizing the theatrical otherness of the setting and highlighting the production numbers; the dancers are seen, as in the talking films of yesteryear, from head to toe, in long shots, with a minimum of editing.

Created by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, who are best known for writing animated feature films (three “Despicable Me” movies, a few adaptations by Dr. Seuss), with songs by Paul, it will appeal to some viewers just by existing, a colorful affair stuffed with music and dancing and stupid people. And he’s certainly likable in his parts and his performances, and in recognizing that there was musical theater before Disney took control of 42nd Street: the musicals of the 1940s and 1950s are his. inspiration and its subject. The songs are good – Paul has a solid grasp of period styles – and stay true to mid-century standards until the last issue, which has the industrially inspired flavor of modern Broadway. (That the citizens of Schmigadoon not know they are singing is a good idea and a smart idea.)

But the book doesn’t sing, even though the actors do. Jokes fall flat. It’s conceptually muddy, magic-themed but somehow lacking in magic, schematic but illogical – a charge that “Schmigadoon!” defends itself preventively. “Romance in musicals doesn’t always make sense,” Melissa tells Josh. “That’s why they usually let the songs do the heavy lifting.” As satire, some of it just seems out of place: The inequality of women in old musicals is a running theme, but that’s not even the case with the shows the show takes off on. (This is certainly not the case with “The Music Man”, the most cited show here.) Partners who recognize an equal, by song, by dance, is at the heart of the musical: We meet his match.

If the town of Schmigadoon is a cosmic contraption designed to bring the tracks together, it separates them instead, and that’s the business that will take up much of the series’ runtime. Some of the citizens who distracted, resisted or helped them include Betsy, a waitress in a low-cut gingham, apparently even younger than she looks (Cameron); Mayor Menlove (Cumming), whose name contains a clue about his character; carnival roustabout Danny (Tveit), a chip from “Carousel”, channeling John Raitt; schoolteacher Emma (DeBose), echoing librarian Marion from “The Music Man”; the countess (Krakowski), a parody of the baroness of “The sound of music”; and Mildred (Chenoweth), more or less the villain of the play, a voice of conservatism and control who dislikes visitors “or their ideas of new towns”. Her large number is a pastiche of “Trouble”: “We have tribulations / Right here in Schmigadoon.… We have conflicts and tribulations / and not to mention crossbreeding.”

The fact that the series was made especially for theater nerds is evident from the title, which is only funny if you know there is a musical called “Brigadoon”, by Alan jay lerner and Frédéric Loewe – as in Brigadoon, Schmigadoon – and only makes sense if you know its central plot, in which a century-old town magically appears in the Scottish highlands once a century. (Oddly, Melissa never thought to mention “Brigadoon,” although she will demonstrate familiarity with 20th century musical theater.)

The references are obvious and obscure (but not terribly) to appeal to different levels of fans. There is a nod to “Oklahoma!” in the opening bars of the main theme of the series. Many will see the show’s zozed kid as Winthrop from “The Music Man”; less can recognize the schmigadoonean exclamation “yee honk” as joining two oaths of this coin, “yee gods” and “big horn”. There are jokes about the dream ballets and the color blind cast. The snow-capped mountains suggest a scene from “The Sound of Music”; an imitation of “Do-Re-Mi” as a sex education lesson confirms this. I’m sure Krakowski’s comedic vampire solo is a side rewrite of “Always True to You in My Fashion” from “Kiss Me Kate,” and, yes, I’m glad to know that.

Why is this happening, other than that the idea of ​​a meta-musical caught the imagination of the authors? You could say the city appears because that’s what the protagonists need – basically what happens in “Brigadoon” – but beyond Melissa looking a bit at Gene Kelly in “Singin ‘in the Rain” , there is no textual reason why the universe should have guided to this particular form of unreality. It seems random. Josh and Melissa don’t discuss, in any depth, what it is – a shared dream, the matrix, hell heaven. They just want to go home. And because so much of the couple’s time is spent out of sync, or so, or out of each other’s company, the question of their relationship, or even their coming home, is less. that crucial.

There are moments of real emotion. As a partner who feels things and goes with the flow, Strong takes over the storyline, and she can sing, dance and cart; the series is perhaps best viewed as a showcase for her, and she’s particularly good with Tveit on a Fosse-esque issue – essentially “Steam Heat,” from “The Pajama Game”. Like Florence, the mayor’s wife, Harada draws a lot from a small role; his solo number, performed with sincerity despite its humorous refrain – “He’s strange, this man of mine” – is quite moving, emotionally complex and rooted in genuine desire and compassion: “I wish I could set him free / so that I can really see it. ”DeBose is also grounded, in a part devoid of silliness, and her dancing with her class is delightful in her exuberance.

If you are going to enjoy this series, and don’t let me stop you, you might be better off not thinking about it. For the performers to have fun. To admire the sets and the choreography (by Christopher Gattelli) and appreciate the fact that in the midst of a pandemic, the children of the choir have found work.

For memory:
1:00 p.m. July 23, 2021: An earlier version of this story stated that the magical city from the musical “Brigadoon” appears once a year. The city appears once every 100 years.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

William N. Fernandez