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Viva Laughlin

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Robert Voets

8-9 p.m. · CBS · Debuts Oct. 18

Hugh Jackman bursts into the room, crooning along with the Rolling Stones’ ”Sympathy for the Devil” while jazz-handing on a craps table in front of a mob of backup dancers. Another Broadway musical role for the Tony award winner? Not quite. Instead, he’s playing slimy casino magnate Nicky Fontana on the premiere of CBS’ musical drama — yes, musical drama — Viva Laughlin, which he’s also executive-producing. This flashy hybrid is based on the U.K. hit Viva Blackpool. Of course, the Brits have a rich tradition of musical episodic television, going back to The Singing Detective. America’s tradition, however, pretty much begins and ends with Cop Rock. The spectre of that timeless punchline makes Viva the biggest gamble of the season, but CBS believes the musical is a natural evolution. ”Cold Case integrates music in a very unique and specific way,” CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler points out. ”And there’s a variety element to American Idol and Dancing With the Stars that has really appealed to American audiences.” Okay, but do they want to watch all three shows mashed together?

In the remake, Lloyd Owen (Miss Potter) plays the slick Ripley Holden, whose casino’s grand opening in Laughlin, Nev., is endangered when the big investor who just pulled out is found dead in Ripley’s office. His casino is also eyed for takeover by his powerful rival, Fontana (played by Jackman, who has preshot some scenes but will only appear in future episodes if his movie schedule permits). Also plotting against Ripley are Fontana’s sneaky aide-de-craps (24‘s DB Woodside); a sly detective (Days of Our Lives‘ Eric Winter) who fingers Ripley as the main suspect in his investor’s death; and the investor’s widow — also Ripley’s scheming, jealous old flame — Bunny Baxter (Melanie Griffith). ”It’s like a Barbara Stanwyck role mixed with Marilyn Monroe,” says Griffith.

This mystery plays out to a familiar sing-along soundtrack, with actors sporadically belting classic hits like Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s ”Let It Ride.” But exec producer Bob Lowry (Huff) maintains this is not a distracting gimmick: The songs are there for dramatic reasons, picked because their lyrics ”move the story forward. Something is accomplished in the song that is not accomplished in dialogue.” As for comparisons to Cop Rock, ”that was policemen breaking into song,” states Owen, in a truly epic feat of parsing. ”On Viva Laughlin, no one ‘ breaks into’ a tune, so it’s not a musical.”

Whether this show gets viewers crooning is the big question — one the network is obviously nervous about, considering that two weeks after his interview with EW, Lowry was relieved of his showrunning duties. (He remains an exec producer, though he won’t be writing.) Whatever happens, the cast thinks Viva is worth the gamble. ”I always want to work on projects that are taking a risk,” says Owen. ”Otherwise I don’t see the point. And if you’re taking a risk, you’ve got a good chance of it being pretty good. Or pretty bad.” —Josh Wolk

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