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Season 2 of 'Schmigadoon!' is bursting with enthusiasm and Broadway talent

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. We've just heard from songwriter Cinco Paul about collaborating on the first season of "Schmigadoon!" Next Wednesday, "Schmigadoon!" returns on Apple TV+ with the first two episodes of a new six-part second season. As in Season 1, Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key star as Melissa and Josh, a modern couple who find themselves transported to a mythical musical land in which everyone tends to break into song and dance. Last season echoed the setting, feeling and music of classic midcentury musicals, like "Oklahoma!" and, of course, "Brigadoon." For Season 2, the tone is inspired by musicals of the '60s and '70s, and it's a lot darker. Once again, this gives Cinco Paul and company the chance to salute or parody some very familiar musical theater classics. But this time the supporting players from last season get to return as entirely new characters, like the ensemble cast members of "American Horror Story" get to do in that anthology series.

Dove Cameron for Season 2 of "Schmigadoon!" plays a Sally Bowles kind of vamp from "Cabaret," while Alan Cumming, who played the Emcee in the revival of that Broadway musical, instead takes on the role of a murderous demon butcher, echoing Sweeney Todd. Jane Krakowski takes on the slick lawyer role from "Chicago" but with a gender switch that allows for a little Roxie Hart as well. And the musicals "Hair" and "Godspell" also are represented, along with "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Dreamgirls." And so is "Sweet Charity," when Melissa and Josh, seated at a table in the nightclub, watch and comment upon the onstage dancers, whose attitude and Bob Fosse choreography may have been provocative 60 years ago but not so much now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHMIGADOON!")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) Do we shock you, make you ill at ease? Do we offend your tender sensibilities? There's no norm we won't transgress. Look. There's a man, and he's wearing a dress.

CECILY STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Yeah. I mean, I've literally seen every season of "Drag Race," so...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) Do we scare you? Are you too refined?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) I'm into boys and girls.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) Does that just blow your mind? Other girls get thanked and tipped. Us, we just like to get spanked and whipped.

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Wonder if the meatloaf's any good.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) Does that shock you? We hope it shocks you 'cause we're really putting a lot of effort into it. What do you think about this?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I've got a tattoo.

BIANCULLI: Whatever is being lampooned, it's treated with affection and obvious enthusiasm. And, wow, is it fun. This season, subtitled "Schmicago," is tighter and better plotted than the original "Schmigadoon!" and is more confident and inventive. Even the acting between songs is a delight. Kristin Chenoweth made me laugh out loud as a combination Mrs. Lovett from "Sweeney Todd" and Ms. Hannigan from "Annie," whether or not she was singing. So did Alan Cumming as the cleaver-carrying butcher, Dooley Flint. When they decide to pair up in a later episode so that she can provide her unwanted orphans as the secret ingredient for his meat pies, the two Broadway veterans turn in a perfect parody of one of the most famous numbers from "Sweeney Todd," only instead of pretending to be customer and server and rhyming the occupations of future victims, they rhyme using the names of the always-underfoot orphans.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHMIGADOON!")

ALAN CUMMING: (As Dooley Flint, singing) I'd love some ground beef.

KRISTIN CHENOWETH: (As Miss Coldwell, singing) Well, then, sir, you're in luck. Which do you prefer? We've got Patty or Chuck.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMING: (As Dooley Flint, singing) Have you any mutton?

CHENOWETH: (As Miss Coldwell, singing) That would be Satin.

CUMMING: (As Dooley Flint, singing) Perhaps some foie gras?

CHENOWETH: (As Miss Coldwell, singing) Voila. See Francoise.

CUMMING: (As Dooley Flint, singing) Baloney.

CHENOWETH: (As Miss Coldwell, singing) Tony.

CUMMING: (As Dooley Flint, singing) Salami.

CHENOWETH: (As Miss Coldwell, singing) Tommy. And we've also got Reuben if you like pastrami.

CUMMING: (As Dooley Flint, singing) But do you...

BIANCULLI: That comes later in the series, but it's worth the wait. And there are gems from the start. Dove Cameron as decadent chanteuse Jenny Banks makes her first appearance as a club headliner with a song and dance that is close enough to a number from "Cabaret" to raise eyebrows.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHMIGADOON!")

DOVE CAMERON: (As Jenny Banks, singing) Back when I was summering in Brussels, I fell in love with Martin and his muscles. My heart got pumping every time he flexed. It's fair to say that I was overcome by what came next. Turns out he wasn't all that strong in bed, and that is when I turned to him and said, we've gone kaput. Now we're kaput. Once our desire burned like a fire, but now there's nothing left but soot. We had a laugh or two, but now the laughter is through. My dear, I fear that we're kaput.

BIANCULLI: This season of "Schmigadoon!" is stronger than many Broadway musicals I've seen and more overloaded with talent. Ariana DeBose is back this year, as are Aaron Tveit and Martin Short. And the newcomers include Titus Burgess as the narrator and Patrick Paige as the villain. Everyone gets a chance to shine and everyone does. I've seen all six episodes, and each one contains at least one really clever song, one very funny scene, and several surprises and references too good to spoil by mentioning. This second season of "Schmigadoon!" is more accessible than the first. And even though "Schmicago" wraps up its storyline very tightly at the end, it's so good, I hope they're planning another schmequel (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF HELEN SUNG'S "SUNGBIRD")

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, "Armageddon: What The Bible Really Says About The End." We talk with Bible scholar Bart Ehrman about his new book. He says a literal reading of the Book Of Revelation has created disastrous problems, including personal and psychological damage and consequences for U.S. foreign policy and the welfare of our planet. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELEN SUNG'S "SUNGBIRD")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELEN SUNG'S "SUNGBIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.