Review: ‘Schmigadoon!’ lovingly pokes fun at musical tropes

By Chris Vognar 

July 13, 2021 Updated: July 16, 2021 (datebook.sfchronicle.com)

Fred Armisen (left), Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming and Ann Harada in “Schmigadoon!,” premiering July 16 on Apple TV+. The musical centers on Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key, who get lost during a backpacking trip and stumble upon a singing village.Photo: Apple

In the 1954 musical “Brigadoon,” American hunters played by Gene Kelly and Van Johnson stumble into a curious Scottish village. The residents look at their unexpected guests quizzically, while the guests can’t shake the feeling they’ve entered an elaborate fantasy from another time. One thing everyone can agree on: Singing and dancing is good for the soul.

Familiarity with the Vincente Minnelli romance, based on a Broadway hit, will enhance your appreciation of the new Apple TV+ confection “Schmigadoon!” But this small-screen, postmodern musical is plenty charming on its own. It’s a witty deconstruction of the genre; while also very much in love with the classics, their infectious joy and even those movie moments that make a cynic ask, “Why is everyone singing?” (a question which, sadly, keeps many from falling under the genre’s sway).

Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) and Melissa (Cecily Strong from “Saturday Night Live,” also a producer) are an unmarried couple from New York, struggling to keep their spark alive. He’s selfish; she’s controlling. They decide to take a backpacking trip, during which they get separated from their group, bear a foggy rainstorm and cross a magical bridge to a gleefully artificial land of rolling green hills, fake plants and townsfolk who just won’t stop bursting into song and dance.

Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key play an unmarried couple from New York in “Schmigadoon!” premiering Friday, July 16, on Apple TV+.Photo: Apple

These villagers seem to have emerged from a classic musical. There’s a little “Sound of Music,” a little “Music Man,” a little “Wizard of Oz,” and that’s just for starters. There’s a mayor (Alan Cumming), a schoolmarm (Ariana DeBose), a guardian of morals (Kristin Chenoweth), her pastor husband (Fred Armisen) … you get the picture. But you likely won’t be prepared for how emotionally resonant and sincere it all is, even when it sinks its teeth into all its parodic possibilities. More than once the newcomers roll their eyes at the opening notes of a song. And then “Schmigadoon!” knocks that song out of the park. The show embraces every bit of the genre’s artificiality.

The writing (Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, both veterans of “Horton Hears a Who!,” created the show) and directing (Barry Sonnenfeld) are lively and smooth. That said, the show has some terrific performers to play with. Take Cumming, who plays Mayor Aloysius Menlove. As his name suggests, he’s gay, but only the big-city newcomers have figured this out, and he remains in the closet. Cumming gives the character a deep sense of pathos, an officiousness hiding the dandy who desperately wants out. It’s a wonderful piece of acting, which should surprise no one who has followed Cumming’s career.

Alan Cumming and Cecily Strong in “Schmigadoon!.” Cumming plays Mayor Aloysius Menlove, a character who remains in the closet.Photo: Apple

At one point, “Schmigadoon!” offers a perfect explanation of what makes a musical tick. If you’re talking, and emotions overwhelm you, you must sing. If you’re singing, and emotions overwhelm you, you must dance. To the extent that “Schmigadoon!” makes fun of musicals, it does so with great wisdom and affection, qualities it also applies to the give-and-take of romantic compromise.

In an era when snark and cynicism are easy and dismayingly popular, “Schmigadoon!” opts for a different path. It asks why everyone is singing, then answers by singing along.

“Schmigadoon!”: Musical comedy series. Starring Keegan-Michael Key, Cecily Strong, Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Ariana DeBose, Fred Armisen, Jaime Camil and Jane Krakowski. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. (TV-14. Six episodes at approximately 30 minutes each.) First two episodes streaming Friday, July 16, on Apple TV+. Subsequent episodes released Fridays through Aug. 13.

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