It’s more or less clear at this point: 2021 is the year where we’re going to try our hardest to finally make musicals happen again. With Schmigadoon!, creators Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio have carefully constructed a heightened reality that combines musical tropes, good old-fashioned small-town values, and the crippling self-awareness of two outsiders who have discovered with bemusement that they’ve stumbled into a universe where everyone sings and dances and no one thinks it’s weird. This is meant to serve as a loving ode to the type of technicolor movie musicals being churned out by Rodgers and Hammerstein from the 1940s through the early 1960s. Sometimes it seems like they’re devoting so much energy to recreating the classic movie musical, they allow the actual narrative to fall by the wayside. But still, it’s difficult to judge Schmigadoon! too harshly: its heart is undeniably in the right place.
Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) and Melissa (Cecily Strong) are two successful doctors who have been in a serious relationship for years, but some cracks are definitely beginning to show. While on a couple’s retreat designed to bring them closer together, they have a huge fight, which results in them being trapped in a strange, old-timey town where musical numbers break out all the time. It doesn’t need to be a special occasion, either: these folks will sing about corn pudding if you let them. When Josh and Melissa try to escape, a leprechaun (played, of course, by Martin Short) informs them that they can only cross the bridge on the outskirts of town when they’ve found true love, a pronouncement that is a little awkward to hear when you’re standing next to your long-term significant other.
The town of Schmigadoon is populated almost exclusively by musical caricatures, referencing Oklahoma, Carousel, The Music Man, The Sound of Music, and of course, its namesake, Brigadoon (a musical where two American travelers find themselves in a mystical Scottish town that only appears for one day every one hundred years.) Perhaps the most appealing element of all of this is that the cast is filled with performers who have legitimate stage musical cred, a rarity in film and television, both of which tend to make it very difficult for actors to make the jump from stage to screen.
Aaron Tveit plays Danny Bailey, a rogueish carnival worker whose main personality traits are bad boy charm and an inability to settle down with any woman. Alan Cumming is preternaturally endearing as the town’s mayor, who is beginning to question his own sexuality. Broadway superstar Kristin Chenoweth plays the town’s resident angry Christian, who insists that her fellow Schmigadoonians follow a strict moral code that she alone can dictate. And Ariana DeBose as Emma Tate, the local unmarried schoolmarm clearly modeled on The Music Man’s Marian the Librarian, is a particular standout — she brings not just musical theater skills but also a natural performing style that makes her feel less like a musical caricature and more like a flesh and blood human.
They’re all consummate professionals, clearly relishing the opportunity to pay homage to musical history. It’s just a pity that there isn’t more for them to do. It’s late in the production before any of them are given a chance to go beyond the constraints of each of their particular archetypes. Given Schmigadoon!’s post-modernist approach to the genre, it might have been interesting to see one or two of the secondary characters more overtly challenging the limitations of the world they live in and the roles they’ve been assigned to play. Because the main problem of Schmigadoon! is that the central narrative of Josh and Melissa trying to find true love isn’t quite enough to prop up the entire production. It relies heavily on that one premise and never bothers to develop it any further, so at times it feels meandering and underwritten.
That said, fans of the musical will find little to complain about. Schmigadoon! caters so exclusively to their particular sensibility that they will likely find themselves enchanted. Between the expansive dance numbers, the often genuinely catchy show tunes, and frequent homages to all of the genre’s little quirks, it’s less of a send-up of the movie musical and more of a love letter. The performances are all impressive, with triple-threat actors not only allowed but encouraged to embrace their inner theater nerd. And it’s all done with such a lightness of touch and genuine good spirit that shortcomings in the actual plotting aside, Schmigadoon! is an intensely enjoyable ride.