Your inclination towards “Schmigadoon!,” at least in its early going, will likely be determined by your reaction to its title.
If you think it’s a clever, charming wink to “Brigadoon” — the Lerner and Loewe musical about an enchanted village, don’t you know? — then you may very well be along for the ride from the first moment. If, like this critic, you think there’s something ineffably cringey about it, with a bit too much effort contained within that exclamation point: Well, you may not find yourself on the wavelength of a show defined by its strenuousness.
Or just not at first, as a cascade of plot and production numbers washes over the viewer. “Schmigadoon!” tells the story of Josh and Melissa, a longtime couple (Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong) who, in the midst of taking a hike, find themselves trapped in a town where citizens dance and sing like they’re in the classic American theater of Lerner and Loewe and Rodgers and Hammerstein; Key and Strong perform a befuddlement that may match the viewer’s own. It takes a while for both characters and viewers to learn the rules of the town of Schmigadoon, which most crucially insist that songs not be interrupted. This is, perhaps, a comedy, but it might more accurately be called a musical with jokes: Full-scale reconstructions of 1940s- and ‘50s-style song-and-dance set pieces proceed with elaborate precision, past the point where they are amusing.
The several stagings in the first episode are meant to jar the series leads, and us, into recognizing the oddity of Schmigadoon, but they may in fact work too well. The songs of “Schmigadoon!” are genuinely impressive but rarely involving. This may be because when Key and Strong’s characters are not a part of the action — when they’re watching from the sidelines, trying to figure out what’s going on — the songs are technical exercises of showmanship that lend us little more understanding of the stakes or the community. Once our leads jump in and start trying to escape Schmigadoon by taking part in its customs and civic life, the series finds more to say; Josh and Melissa’s being trapped there is, we learn, a result of their not being truly in love, and they must either find their way back to one another or find new partners. Here, perhaps, we have an attempt to apply classic-musical logic to a relationship that’s broken in contemporary ways. Practically, though, this development forces Key and Strong apart for much of the series as they look for new love, and we see little of their chemistry in occasional pre-Schmigadoon flashback scenes.
And it takes a while for the show to deploy Key and Strong, both gifted and game performers, to get truly involved in the action of the story rather than stare uncomprehendingly at the show’s elaborate music, or haltingly attempt to join in. For two performers with utterly modern sensibilities, they do little to effectively push back against the rule-bound world of Schmigadoon. Another show might have allowed them to create tension with their environment, but here, they’re subsumed by it.
What they’re watching and eventually taking part in, granted, is a painstaking reconstruction of the world of great theater — a merger, perhaps, of the showmanlike impulses of executive producer Lorne Michaels and the visual gifts of director Barry Sonnenfeld. It’s an admirable thing to have pulled off and, in a world where live theater is only glimmering back into view after more than a year off, a lovely one in many ways. But what’s missing from Schmigadoon, and from “Schmigadoon!,” is real idiosyncracy. Great musicals tend to build worlds, and a problem for “Schmigadoon!” is that it is working as hard as it is to be generic — to borrow broadly across the American songbook rather than making something that feels truly and deeply itself.
The gifted actors playing Schmigadoon’s townspeople are firmly ensconced within character types: There’s Kristin Chenoweth as the town busybody, Alan Cumming as the soulful mayor, Aaron Tveit as the alluring bad-boy, and so on. Jane Krakowski appears as a figure explicitly modeled on the Baroness from “The Sound of Music.” It’s no surprise that she’s wonderful, even as the character’s somewhat shoehorned in to a more bucolic small-town setting. Of the supporting cast, only Ariana DeBose, as the sweet-natured schoolteacher for whom Key’s character develops a fondness, has moments of real feeling that transcend appreciation for her technical mastery of the form. This is the show’s most obviously emotional element: Strong’s attempts to break out are more broadly humorous, and the townfolk’s movement toward self-discovery is less effectively or consistently drawn. A plotline about the secret inner life of Cumming’s character Mayor Menlove, reliant on too-droll double entendres, fell flat for this viewer.
It’s DeBose, a Tony nominee to be featured in the upcoming “West Side Story” film adaptation, whom you miss when she’s offscreen. She, for instance, nails a schoolhouse-set number involving her at the center of a passel of tap-dancing kids, one I rewound to watch elements of again, and again. But she also brings real elegance to the show’s most unironically emotional element, involving her painful personal history and the responsibilities she still owes to family. Her peers in Schmigadoon are, intentionally, broad types, and Josh and Melissa’s relationship is a familiar, almost archetypal, coupling that’s run out of gas. It’s in DeBose’s work, merging technical mastery with real soulfulness, that the show breaks out of its own imitative rut and starts to find something to say.
Which feels too bad, if only because so much talent was involved in bringing to the screen a show that ought to have been a home run. There’s something miscalibrated about “Schmigadoon!” After having borrowed quite so heavily from traditional forms, the show only haltingly and gradually, and without much of the help that the neglected Key and Strong might have provided, arrives at something that can stand on its own. Much of the effort the show expends — to great and striking effect — seems to be working around its lack of a truly compelling core idea. The show is well worth watching in many particulars, but it may elicit more nods of appreciation for what it mimics well than standing ovations for how it transcends.
“Schmigadoon!” premieres Friday, July 16 on Apple TV Plus.