“Schmigadoon!” is a bit of theater kid magic that starts by expanding the concept of “Brigadoon” into a whole musical-verse. But instead of a Van Johnson and Gene Kelly venturing into a singing town of people apparently stuck in time, it’s Melissa (Cecily Strong) and her boyfriend Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) who wander from a couple’s therapy hike into “Schmigadoon!,” thinking its a hardcore but chintzy tourist attraction in the middle of the woods. They’re greeted with a massive song and dance number, and references to “Oklahoma!”, “The Music Man,” “The Sound of Music” and others abound as they learn more about this bizarre alternative reality. Melissa is in heaven, as she knows the musicals and their cliches; Josh hates it, and refers to it as “if ‘The Walking Dead’ was also Glee.”’
A funny thing happens when they try to go back to reality: they are not able to. A leprechaun played by Martin Short (billed in the credits even with this brief appearance in episode one) gives them the low-down—only people walking with their true love are allowed to cross the bridge back into reality. That leaves Melissa and Josh in a juicy conundrum that gives the light-hearted project a vital gravity. Who is their right person then, if not each other?
The couple retreats back to Schmigadoon and their relationship officially ends. It’s here that the story takes on the plot of something like an indie dramedy about two partners seeing other people when their love has faded. It’s been a long time coming, given how flashbacks at the beginning of each episode shows how the relationship ended up in therapy; Josh’s adamant disinterest in singing in “Schmigadoon!” is an extension of how he can’t express himself in the relationship, and how she invests in what he does not. Strong and Key create various sparks whenever they clash about their bizarre predicament, their banter shifting from self-aware digs about the strange world and more to addressing problems they brought in with them. Like two theater kids who break up in the middle of a production, Melissa and Josh are stuck having to deal with the pain of seeing their partner getting close with others.
There are many great contenders for Melissa and Josh, ripped from the playbooks but enacted with heart. Aaron Tveit’s bad boy Danny (who operates the town’s Tunnel of Love) twirls and floats like Gene Kelly as he talks about not being able to be tamed, until of course he meets Melissa; a self-protective but at times radiant schoolmarm named Emma (Ariana DeBose) lights up her individual sequences that catch Josh’s eye, including an adorable routine that has her and her students dancing on their desks. Then there’s Jaime Camil’s dashing but egocentric Doc Lopez, who also has a great voice and sumptuous camera presence, and takes Melissa even farther from Josh. All of these supporting actors are gifted with clever, touching, often catchy musical numbers from Cinco Paul, who co-created the series with Ken Daurio.
“Schmigadoon!” leaves you wanting more from its harvest of scene-stealers (not to mention the likes of Fred Armsen, Jane Krakowski, Ann Harada and Dove Cameron, who also appear), and while the story’s plotting is energetic it doesn’t make a lot of room for everyone. Take the almighty Kristin Chenoweth, who has approximately one big musical number as the town’s hilariously pious buzzkill Mildred, who hovers around town and stares at Melissa and Josh with contempt. Chenoweth’s big moment is incredible though, how she talk-sings and stirs up the Schmigadoonies in a way that only sounds like rapping. But while she holds the center of a high-speed, one-take musical number later in the season, her reduced screen-time overall is a tough part of the bargain. The show really is a three-hour musical chopped into six episodes, with two leads who let the singing and dancing happen around them.
One of the biggest charms of “Schmigadoon!” is in seeing a push-and-pull relationship drama play out among creamy pastel colors, bright daylight, and the blissful artifice of a studio set. Barry Sonnenfeld directed each episode of this season, and he creates a strong tone to the proceedings that keeps it light, funny, and lively, especially when the concept makes way for a warm, mini world. By episode three, as Melissa and Josh settle more into the surroundings and stop pushing back against the musical numbers that come out of thin air, the series also settles in; it makes sense. “Schmigadoon!” gets a significant momentum from how different people try to win their hearts, and it makes us wonder what shift is coming next.
Melissa and Josh also have a “Pleasantville”-like effect on this politely freakish town, in that they change how its sheltered residents think, and how they present themselves. Alan Cumming plays a secretly gay mayor named Menlove (“Schmigadoon!” loves words, especially when they can show how such musicals only pretend to have subtext), and his otherwise enthusiastic character goes on his own small journey of becoming more accepting of who he really is. The show also tries to keep an eye on horrific gender norms from the musicals’ era and tries to correct them, or at least make a knowing joke about them. Melissa becomes a larger surrogate for this experience, especially when she later uses her doctor skills, but everyone in town can only manage to call her a nurse.
The overall emotional impact is less graceful; it can struggle to make a deeper emotional point out of the corny character dynamics that otherwise make the series playful, and the songs classically sweet. And the final episode of this first season seems to rush its plotting, without giving us a good reason as to why except that all good things must come to end, some things more tactfully than others.
But “Schmigadoon!” is just about as entertaining and cute as it dreams of being; in that middle section it becomes especially breezy, and offers that cozy spectacle that comes from basking in vibrant musical numbers with smiling faces, stacked vocal harmonies, and epic choreography. A worthwhile parody—a great one—is an act of love. And while “Schmigadoon!” certainly wants to joke about the strangeness of its own premise, or the antiquated tropes within the musical’s fantasy, it most of all very clearly wants to put on a dazzling show. That very enthusiasm is nearly impossible to resist.
All of season one screened for review. The first two episodes of “Schmigadoon!” premiere on Apple TV+ on July 16.