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‘Rise’ review: High-school musical drama falls flat

Josh Radnor, left, stars as a teacher out

Josh Radnor, left, stars as a teacher out to reinvigorate a high school theater program in "Rise." Credit: NBC / Peter Kramer

THE SERIES “Rise”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on NBC/4, airing on subsequent Tuesdays at 9 p.m.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), an English teacher in a rust-belt Pennsylvania town, decides to take over the theater program at Stanton High. This infuriates its current overseer, Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez), who ultimately decides to work with the interloper. They begin to assemble the cast for Stanton’s new production of “Spring Awakening,” including football star Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie), Gwen Strickland (Amy Forsyth), Lilette Suarez (Auli’i Cravalho) and Simon Saunders (Ted Sutherland). Coach Strickland (Joe Tippett) is furious “Mr. Mazzu” has taken his star, while Lou’s wife, Gail (Marley Shelton), is worried the play will take her husband’s time away from their kids, especially from troubled teen son Gordie (Casey W. Johnson).

This Jason Katims (“Friday Night Lights,” “Parenthood”) series is based on “Drama High,” the 2013 book by Michael Sokolove, about Lou Volpe, a celebrated Levittown, Pennsylvania, teacher who build an award-winning theater program at its Harry S Truman High.

MY SAY A high school teacher decides to put on a musical. He recruits kids from wildly divergent backgrounds and orientations — some gay, some straight, some closeted. The football coach protests because his star quarterback joins the cast. Parents get nervous. The kids begin to gel. The musical comes together and . . .

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, because you almost certainly have: “Rise” has a glimmer of “Glee,” a smattering of “Smash” and a hint of “High School Musical.” There’s a faint trace of “Fame,” too. (There always is.) As a let’s-put-on-a-show show, “Rise” has lots of company but as a high-school drama even more, including “Degrassi” or Katims’ own “FNL.”

Both formulas are sturdy story generators except that they often tend to be the same story, or subsets of the same, as kids triumph over adversity, or over parents, jocks, teachers, or repressive troglodytes of various stripes. There are setbacks — there always are — but true love prevails. (It always does, too.)

What, then, does “Rise” bring that’s so new or fresh, with the possible exception of “Spring Awakening”? Not all that much, but that’s hardly what makes “Rise” occasionally so exasperating. Instead, it often plods along as a collection of prefabricated moments that demand viewer engagement as opposed to ones that are organically built and which breathe on their own and ultimately succeed on their own. That’s what Katims does so well, after all, arguably as well as anybody.

But not quite here. The source material’s not likely to blame, because “Rise” has stepped away from “Drama High” to a certain degree. Huffington Post’s Queer Voices, a widely read site for the LGBT community, caused an uproar in early January when it reported that “Rise” had “straight-washed” Radnor’s character — that is, made him straight although Volpe is gay. Katims was forced to respond that “we are firmly committed to LGBTQ inclusion.”

The most compelling characters in “Rise” are, in fact, gay or transgender — all three of them — but they’re largely relegated to the background through the first six episodes. The foreground is cluttered with an emo music track, handheld camera work, and far too many stories that feel rote as opposed to searing, authentic or sharp-edged.

The show’s heart is in the right place and its love and support of theater, along with the arts in general, is beyond gratifying. The cast is good, and the occasional “Spring Awakening” number, too. But “Rise” needed more. Call it plain old magic.

BOTTOM LINE The few “Spring Awakening” numbers are good, the cast is solid, but otherwise “Rise” falls flat.

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