'Bunheads' brings Broadway, ballet to TV

ABC Family's "Bunheads" stars Emma Dumont as Melanie, ABC Family's "Bunheads" stars Emma Dumont as Melanie, Kaitlyn Jenkins as Boo, Kelly Bishop as Fanny, Sutton Foster as Michelle, Bailey Buntain as Ginny and Julia Goldani Telles as Sasha. Photo Credit: ABC Family

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Linda Winer Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer.

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987.

Fans of NBC's "Smash" are revving up for a second season of star-packed backstage theatrics with the fictional creators of a Broadway musical. Me, I'm feeling melancholy about the end of the first season of "Bunheads."

If you don't know what I'm talking about, don't blame yourselves. "Bunheads," a summer series on -- who knew? -- ABC Family, hasn't exactly enjoyed the plush marketing cushion that has supported "Smash" since the (Steven Spielberg co-produced) show began in February.

This isn't a contest. But surely "Bunheads," which I'm relieved to hear will return this winter with eight new episodes, deserves to be part of any discussion about the infusion of New York stage actors, Broadway and even -- dare I say it? -- the arts into mainstream TV.

If that sounds sober and significant, forget I said it. "Bunheads," the nickname for ballet dancers who tie their hair into topknots, revolves around life in a high-end, small-town California dance school. The show is bright and funny, with genuine culture credibility and unpredictable, articulate, quirky but seldom overly quirky characters who talk really fast. I mean aaronsorkinfast.

Amy Sherman-Palladino, who did the same for three generations of women in "Gilmore Girls," doesn't just create nonstop dialogue with comic nerve connections that stretch unself-consciously into pop culture and individual psychology. She -- or someone close to her -- really knows both ballet and Broadway. This is the rare popular show about the arts that, with blissfully deceptive effortlessness, actually gets them right.

Besides, in the middle of all this, is Sutton Foster -- the genuine, top-of-the-line, real thing. Foster, who has Tony Awards for her breakout 2002 Broadway debut in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and her 2011 star turn in "Anything Goes," plays Michelle, a ballet-trained Vegas showgirl who, in desperation, marries a nice, probably boring guy and moves with him to the coastal town of Paradise, where he lives with his mother, who runs a ballet school behind the house. And where he promptly dies in a car crash.

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Thus evolves a spiky female-buddy dramedy about fish-out-of-water Michelle and her strong-willed, short-term mother-in-law, Fanny. Now factor in the delicious fact that Fanny is played by Kelly Bishop, the mother in "Gilmore Girls" and the original Sheila, who uttered the legendarily impudent "Can the adults please smoke?" in reaction to being called boys and girls by the director in "A Chorus Line."

In fact, the whole cast is lovely -- especially the teen girls who can deliver a wisecrack as deftly as they lyrically extend a long leg or execute a quick turn. Insecurities are intrinsic both to ordinary growing up and to growing expertly into brutally exposed performers.

I guess we shouldn't be surprised at Foster's versatility. When she burst into the scene in the frisky, loopy "Millie," she was the understudy who stepped into the title role a week before the out-of-town previews and arrived with her own star-is-born biography. She had a smile that reminded me of Mary Tyler Moore, the gawky comic precision of the young Carol Burnett, the lyricism of a romantic heroine and an uninhibited what-the-heck comfort level to match the discipline of her technique.

She tossed off cartwheels as she changed gowns six times while memorably singing about being tired of showing off in "The Drowsy Chaperone" in 2006. A year later, she brought her endearing awkward soubrette silliness to Inga in "Young Frankenstein." Another year later, she was wonderfully tap dancing with mice as Shrek's lovely and ridiculous Princess Fiona.

But we didn't know about her dramatic daring until she left big Broadway musicals to transform into a dazzling but damaged dominatrix -- complete with thigh-high leather boots and a real bullwhip -- Off-Broadway in Paul Weitz's "Trust" in 2010. When I asked her then about her journey away from musicals, she explained, "I was really looking for projects that excited me. When I read 'Trust,' the idea of delving into a world that I was so unfamiliar with and frankly so uncomfortable with excited me very much."

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Despite the differences between plays and musicals, she claimed, "We are all just telling stories, creating characters, going on journeys. Just sometimes the characters break into song or dance in a musical as a way of expressing themselves."

How lucky for us that TV has a place where she can do all of that in such a smart, unpretentious show. How smart? For example, the season finale included the school's annual production of "The Nutcracker." In less than one hour, we got a good mean joke about "The Red Shoes" and throwaway references to Kofi Annan, Justin Bieber, "The Shining" and "Single White Female." When the students said dancers don't eat candy bars, Michelle scoffed, "Suzanne Farrell was 60 percent caramel."

Bishop swept around as Drosselmeyer and Foster "moderned" the mice dance into an expressionist Wall Street rat number that suggested Kurt Jooss' anti-war masterwork, "The Green Table." Then Foster had a dream sequence in a dark rehearsal studio where she sang "Maybe This Time" from "Cabaret" with Fosse-lite choreography. Oh, and -- spoiler alert -- the entire "Nutcracker" ended up in the ER after Foster accidentally squirted mace instead of hair spray.

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New York actors have been supporting their careers with TV gigs since "Law & Order" was a procedural pup. What's new is the shows that use actors in shows about show business.

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How influential is the new crossover? In March 2011, Christian Borle was wonderful as the pirate Stash in the Off-Broadway premiere of "Peter and the Starcatcher." Then Borle became identifiable as Debra Messing's witty and likable songwriting partner in "Smash." By the time "Peter" opened on Broadway in April, Borle (incidentally, Foster's husband from 2006 to 2009) was just as wonderful. But now he also was famous, and won the Tony Award.

If we're going to have to lose actors to television, at least "Bunheads" and "Smash" bring Broadway's message along with them.

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