Headlines have read, “The Musical is back” for years. With “The Greatest Showman” recently becoming a word of mouth sensation in theaters, audiences seem primed for musicals. NBC’s “Rise,” which fancies itself the grittier, working class “Glee,” may very well bring that momentum to a halt. The tone-deaf musical drama finds a teacher trying to galvanize students, faculty and a community around a high school production of “Spring Awakening.” The messages of class disparity, a small town in an economic downturn and the power of a musical never coalesce.
“Rise” centers on Lou Mazzuchelli, “Mr. Mazzu,” (Josh Radnor) a would-be “Dangerous Minds” type inspiring teacher who decides to reinvigorate the school’s theater program. The current director, Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez), is putting on “Grease” for yet another year. Mr. Mazzu, however, decides to put on “Spring Awakening,” inspiring lots of controversy and ire from the rest of the school and the conservative, working-class community.
Josh Radnor flounders in the leading role of Mr. Mazzu. He hijacks the local theater program at Stanton High to fulfill a desire of his, but does so at the expense of every person in his path. He denigrates Tracey, the former drama club director, and shakes up the casting at his own whims. The show is based on the book “Drama High,” which follows a real-life teacher, Lou Volpe, and his theater program at Harry S Truman High in Pennsylvania. One element of the book, involving Volpe’s sexuality, doesn’t seem to be present here. Instead, we get a boring family drama where Lou and his wife, Gail (Marley Shelton), jump to the conclusion that their eldest son, Gordy (Casey Johnson) is an alcoholic.
A better version of this show would’ve cast Rosie Perez as the maverick English teacher turned drama director. There’s something unnerving about watching this smart, headstrong Latina woman be bulldozed by this mediocre white man solely because he woke up one day with a dream. Tracey knows the inner politics of the school. She also possesses relationships with these kids before Mr. Mazzu randomly walks in. After a ham-fisted act of defiance by Mr. Mazzu gets the theater program defunded, Tracey delivers a schlocky-at-best speech to the school boosters to raise money for theater over football. Stanton High doesn’t know what it has in Tracey. Likewise, “Rise” doesn’t seem to realize it has Oscar nominee Rosie Perez among their ranks.
The collection of kids fare somewhat better. The main story-line revolves around Lillette (Auli’i Cravalho from “Moana”), a shy girl thrust into the leading role, and her crush on Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie), the star quarterback cast in the leading male role. Both of them have lukewarm chemistry that hopefully turns up later on in the season. The supporting characters bring more spark. Gwen (Amy Forsyth), the daughter of the football coach and star performer of the theater program, steals every scene as she shows contempt for her smaller role in the play. Simon (Ted Sutherland), the male star of the theater program who is cast in the gay role, anchors the most obvious of the subplots. However, its Ellie Desautels who shines brightest as Michael, a trans member of the musical. Desautels never overplays the narrative, even when the show wants to.
Showrunner’s Jason Katims opens “Rise” on a closed power plant and atmospheric shots of a town in shambles to give us a sense of the town where Stanton High is located. This ability to imbue a place with a DNA and personality was present through “Friday Night Lights,” Katims previous show. However, here it just serves as thin window dressing for an even flimsier show. Examining the effects of a community in turmoil is an interesting perspective. It can be used to give a new dimension to the struggles of the characters. However, none of the characters appear to be affected by this closed steel plant, either directly or tangentially. Instead, it serves as an excuse for this in-your-face shaky cam style of directing. It attempts to make the character’s struggles more real, but comes off as amateurish more than anything else.
FOX’s “Glee” started with a bang before succumbing to its worst impulses season after season. One positive note about the show that catapulted itself to the top was its commitment to its hyper-specific tone. It was a mile-a-minute, candy-colored dramedy with three songs and at least two tear-jerking moments an episode. It had control over what it wanted to be and the audience was along for the ride. “Rise” lacks any compelling sense of tone or urgency. These kids strive to put on a controversial show for a conservative town. However, other than Simon’s strict parents, we get very little sense of the town’s opposition. Once again, everything boils down to whether a football player will make time to do theater. That material has been done so often, even “High School Musical” seems original and insightful.