A loving spoof of midcentury musicals, from “Brigadoon” to “Oklahoma!” to “Carousel,” the Apple TV+ series “Schmigadoon!” returns for a second season with its modern-day couple, played by Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong, stumbling into an entirely different musical twilight zone: A place called Schmicago.
A winking homage to titles from the ‘60s and ‘70s — Bob Fosse’s greatest hits (“Pippin”/“Chicago”/“Sweet Charity”/“Cabaret”), the hippie-inspired (“Hair”/“Godspell”) plus “A Chorus Line,” “Sweeney Todd” and more — somehow the comedic zaniness of this improbable mashup works. While I appreciated the show’s first season, I quickly lost patience with it; the central joke felt too repetitive. I didn’t experience any of that with its move to Schmicago.
Mired in personal and professional ennui, Josh and Melissa (Key and Strong) head back into the woods (ha! A pun worthy of a third season if it tackles the ‘80s) to recapture that old Schmigadoon magic. But instead of a Technicolor soundstage, they encounter a darker, seedier alternate reality, where they are greeted by a “Pippin”-esque narrator (Tituss Burgess) who performs the opening number promising lots of sex, but no romance: “Does that shock you? We hope it shocks you because we’re really puttin’ a lot of effort into it!”
Several familiar faces from the first season turn up as new characters, including Dove Cameron as a variation on Sally Bowles. She’s the star attraction at a nightclub run under the stern eye of Ann Harada’s Madam Frau. Now that’s the kind of ridiculous wordplay that I can get behind: Madam Frau!
When a dancer at the club turns up dead, Josh is framed for her murder. His fate left in the hands of a slinky lawyer (Jane Krakowski) offering dubious assurances, Melissa goes undercover as a dancer to find out what really happened.
Before she can do that, Josh breaks out of jail with his cellmate, played by Aaron Tveit in full hippie regalia, who invites the uptight Josh to join his commune and embrace a more laid-back existence.
In an entirely different part of town, a version of “Sweeney Todd” is playing out with Alan Cumming (Schmicago’s resident butcher) and Kristin Chenoweth (as his Mrs. Lovett-esque partner in … something). Don’t ask, somehow it all fits together. At six episodes, the show is just the right length — neither belaboring things nor overstaying its welcome.
The series functions like a game of Name that Reference and it’s a hoot on those merits alone if you have a decent familiarity with musicals from this era. “Mein Herr” from “Cabaret” is reimagined as “We’ve Gone Kaput” (complete with bentwood chair choreography). Melissa’s audition at the club is a riff on “I Hope I Get It” from “A Chorus Line,” but with a more overt plea for the job: “I Need to Eat.” Musically, the groovy harmonies of the “Hair” parody, “Everyone’s Gotta Get Naked,” might be the catchiest tune of the second season — legitimately at the level of a Broadway musical looking to send the audience out humming.
The songs are from Cinco Paul, who is the show’s co-creator with Ken Daurio, and the score is by composer Christopher Willis. The music is stronger this time out, maybe because there’s more variety to draw on for inspiration. And with Schmicago, the show escapes the increasingly bland visuals of the first season, both in setting and costumes. Anachronisms abound and yet it all makes a strange sort of sense, from Tveit’s bell-bottom jeans and fringed suede vest to Krakowski’s leg-baring lady suiting to the saucy little black-and-white leotards worn by Strong, Cameron and Ariana DeBose during Melissa’s big number on stage at the club.
DeBose also gets a terrific “Dreamgirls”-inspired number, which is maybe fudging the era a bit since it premiered in ‘81, but who cares, she belts it out with so much feeling. She, along with Harada, Burgess, Cumming, Chenoweth, Krakowski and Tveit, are legitimate Broadway talents and they’ve landed on a tone that goes right up to the edge of camp without sacrificing real earnestness when warranted. You have to appreciate the meta-humor of Tveit’s character — a draft-dodging free spirit who is the very embodiment of the hippie mantra “don’t trust anyone over 30” — being played by an actor who’s pushing 40. Age, schmage; Tveit is very funny.
With Key and Strong, you have two seasoned pros who actually seem to delight in one another. They understand where the humor lies, but also that none of it matters if Josh and Melissa don’t feel like real people. As actors, they’re effectively doing double duty here: Embodying the straight man trope (their reactions are full of wonderful little choices and wry facial expressions) but also embracing their surroundings and playing in this world.
It’s frothy and fizzy but Strong, in particular, is the grounding element. She brings a vulnerability that earns the season’s emotionally resonant epilogue as the couple returns home and literally brings color to their lives. They don’t need or want the fantasy, they want the real thing:
Happy endings don’t exist
But here’s a pearl you may have missed
Every day can be a happy beginning.
I’ve rewatched that closing number a few times and my cold dark heart gets choked up every time.
On its surface, “Schmigadoon!” is a lampoon. Strong gives the kind of performance that turns it into something deeper.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
How to watch: Apple TV+