Theatre Review: ‘Smile’ at Mel Miller’s Musicals Tonight!

New York, NY — The good news is that Smile has had its claws restored. Hamlisch’s score feels weightier this time.

Smile runs through November 3, 2013 Presented by Musicals Tonight! at the Lion Theatre, NY

A group of pretty California high school girls has assembled in Santa Rosa, among them Robin (Patti-Lee Meringo), innocent and questioning, and Doria (Jenna Pastuszek), a seasoned, cynical beauty contest veteran fleeing an awful home life. Her establishing song, “Disneyland,” is the score’s best, evoking Doria’s need to find something, anything to believe in and want, even if it’s a plastic fantasyland, and Pastuszek pours a lot of longing into it. The statewide contest is being supervised by Brenda (Jeanette Fitzpatrick), a frustrated former Young American Miss finalist who steamrolls over anybody to get what she wants, including her husband Bob (Tom Lucca), a nice, uncorrupted guy who is, as one character acidly comments, the only true Young American Miss.

The Cast of SMILE at Musicals Tonight

Contestants scheme to subvert one another, Brenda schemes to win attention from the national contest director; her obnoxious son Little Bob (Jaron Frand) schemes to take naked photos of the girls. And all the while the talk is of what a wonderful thing a pageant is, a patriotic, God-loving celebration of the girls’ “poise, personality, and promise.”

Cast of Smile 2013The opening number, “Typical High School Senior,” parrots the party line on these values, while tossing in sotto voce references to the girls’ true selves—smoking, swearing, sneaking liquor. The profit motive is held supreme. Capitalism rules, and mealy-mouthed references to religion, volunteer work, and “helping others” are exposed as how Americans make themselves feel better to justify their venality.

This is one of Musicals Tonight!’s most elaborate productions, with a large cast and lots of costume changes. Director-choreographer Thomas Sabella-Mills, whose work on the group’s recent Mexican Hayride was disappointing, picks up the pace here and gives everyone onstage a chance to, as one number puts it, “shine, shine, shine.” The contestants have distinct personalities, and one, Valerie (Hannah Owens), is hilarious, always a step behind and looking bewildered. Sabella-Mills sends them out into the audience, forcing us to confront the voyeuristic nature of beauty pageants head-on. And when a fatuously grinning Ted exhorts, “Aren’t they something?” we’re so charmed that we do, in fact, applaud.

Jenna Pastuszek as Doria- Smile 2013

Hamlisch’s score, which sounded inconsequential to me in 1986, feels weightier this time. He was a whiz at composing the catchy, mindless sort of jingles beauty contestants would sing, and their ultimate anthem, “In Our Hands,” is pitched perfectly between sincere and mocking. Ashman gave him too many I’m‑an-anxious-teenage-girl numbers, but they’re musically varied. Smile may never be a classic musical, with its many static characters yielding an insufficient emotional payoff. But as an indictment of what the average American cares about, it’s sharp indeed, and Musicals Tonight! puts that sharpness on elegant display.

Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission.

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Source: New York Theatre Guide