Ten minutes into “Central Park” comes the kind of true-blue Broadway group number that brings every character and chord crashing together in a burst of overt ambitions and desires. There’s Owen (Leslie Odom Jr), the quietly competent manager of New York City’s Central Park, determined to make people care about the land’s natural quirks as much as he does. There’s his plucky reporter wife Paige (Kathryn Hahn), determined to chase down a harder news story than her bored editor usually assigns. There’s their daydreaming daughter Molly (Kristen Bell) and son Cole (Tituss Burgess), determined to love and be loved. There’s Bitsy (Stanley Tucci), a malevolent heiress determined to destroy the park, and her long-suffering maid Helen (Daveed Diggs), determined to stick it out until Bitsy finally croaks and leaves her a fortune.
The resulting song interweaves all their storylines and inner monologues with the eager gusto of a kid hopscotching down the sidewalk: sometimes landing outside the lines, but more often just having (and being!) too much fun to care. If you’re at all inclined towards musicals, there’s just no resisting that kind of unbridled enthusiasm, no matter how clichéd or saccharine. When it comes to musicals, naked sincerity is usually half the point — a fact that “Central Park” leans on, hard.
From creators Loren Bouchard, Nora Smith, and Josh Gad, “Central Park” takes the heartwarming pulse of “Bob’s Burgers” and cranks it up to eleven. The musical interludes are frequent and wildly catchy, usually catered to their singers’ strengths. Odom Jr., for example, gets soaring choruses and talky verses that recall his run as Aaron Burr in the original “Hamilton” cast, while Cole’s preteen melodrama lets Burgess belt with his signature flair. On the other end of the spectrum is Hahn’s wonderfully screwball approach to Paige and Tucci’s Bitsy, a perfectly maniacal adversary who doesn’t exactly get to sing so much as smirk through scheming songs while constantly twirling her (metaphorical) mustache.
The one confusing piece of casting, unfortunately, is Bell’s Molly. Bell’s more than capable of voicing an awkward teenager, but Molly’s a biracial teen who spends most of her time drawing herself into a superhero comic in which her afro puffs have powers. Hearing Bell’s voice come out of that character is genuinely jarring, and disappointing, besides. Bell is good, but there are plenty of wonderful black actresses who can sing; why deprive them of the chance to play this character from a more grounded place?
That exception is especially frustrating because, generally speaking, Molly and her family make for some of the show’s best moments, even as the series volleys between the park and the powerful rich people trying to destroy it for their own interests. Even as the show is still honing its particular version of New York City four episodes in, its characters are generally sharp and funny enough to keep it zipping along in the meantime. If it can get a better grip on its setting and give the family comedy at its heart more room amongst everything else, “Central Park” could bloom into something special.
“Central Park” premieres Friday, May 29 on Apple TV Plus.