Budget cuts and frustrated teens fuel the second week of Drama drama.
Rise - Season 1
Credit: Virginia Sherwood/NBC
S1 E2
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After last week’s sacrificial Pirates of Penzance costume and prop bonfire (which also completely takes Peter Pan out of the running for Rise season 2), Principal Ward decides that the mature chess move in his battle with Stanton Drama is not to put an immediate end to Mr. Mazzu’s musical malfeasance, but rather, to allow the English-teacher-turned-drama-despot to continue with his still-controversial, still-inappropriate, still-expensive musical.

“Fail on your own,” he says, doing that well-known thing principals always do when they knowingly let a school-wide disaster happen just so they don’t have to “be the bad guy!” As a bare minimum of involvement, Principal Ward slashes Mr. Mazzu’s budget as punishment for the destruction of school property and effectively recuses himself from all responsibility for the next four to six episodes.

Ms. Wolfe is…surprised, apparently, that the bonfire she led has financial consequences, but she believes she can solve their money problem by making a case at the school district budget meeting. Mr. Mazzu takes an opposite stance: Rather than ask the board for the money we need to produce the show, what if we…don’t? And what if, instead, we use our rare time at the board meeting to evoke inspiration about Spring Awakening in lieu of evoking funds? The assistant football coach then takes the floor and makes his case for a JumboTron for $117,000, which is already a stronger argument simply by virtue of actually being one.

Like an Elphaba standby after “No Good Deed,” Ms. Wolfe has heard enough. She gives an impassioned speech that, truly, is the first good impassioned speech of Rise. It insults football a little bit, which is always a fun bonus, and culminates in an impulsive request for $14,000 to produce the show. Afterward, Mr. Mazzu is angry that she did THE THING THEY NEEDED TO DO and calls her a liability. It hurts, but she has seen The Greatest Showman and will not let the sharpest words cut her down. By the episode’s end, Ms. Wolfe has managed to get $750 from her request, and despite the 5 percent success rate, she sweetly but sternly asserts herself to Mr. Mazzu as an asset, not a liability. Thank you, Rise, for the gift of Ms. Wolfe, who is keeping this entire fiddler from falling off the roof, and for Ms. Rosie Perez, who is serving FULL Featured Actress in a Play.

Mr. Mazzu essentially spends the entire second episode of Rise fueled by the grumps. He initially funnels his frustration onto Gwen, who has been acting out in rehearsal because she’s still upset about being passed over for Wendla. She’s somehow both listless and brassy during rehearsal, belting the quiet moments of Ilse (a character who, by the way, Rise assumes you know everything about) and doing her assigned choreography, apparently problematically. It does not help when Mr. Mazzu both publicly calls her out and spontaneously moves her to the back of the chorus line, exercising anotherterrible thing that happens in movies and TV: Say what you will about Regina George, but the worst thing she ever did was abruptly change choreography at the last minute.

Stepping into Gwen’s home life, we learn that it’s not her fault that she’s feeling stifled and frustrated. Her parents barely tolerate each other now that dad is back under the roof, and the subject of theatre riles everyone; Mrs. Strickland has harsh words for the football coach about losing Robbie to drama, and harsh words for Gwen about losing drama to Lilette. So Gwen over-delivers when she rehearses, hoping to prove her mettle in her limited stage time and make Mr. Mazzu regret his casting decision. Mr. Mazzu begrudges her for it, but how could he? She’s only got a couple of moments in this show, so why wouldn’t she sing out? And honestly, what could Mr. Mazzu? You cast one of your best singers in a tiny part that has a few awesome songs, and you don’t expect her to be a little extra? Sorry, but you don’t cast a Star-to-Be as a July and expect her to be grateful for sharing one “Hard Knock Life” solo line with Duffy.

Gwen is also disappointed that Robbie and Lilette seem to be getting their momentum together, and when it all just becomes too much for her, she confronts Mr. Mazzu head-on instead of passively-aggressively rehearsing at him. He gives her one his Speeches, and lo, she suddenly discovers the pain within her to slay “The Song of Purple Summer” alone on the stage. It is good. Gwen is good. Mr. Mazzu is still not. Mmkay, moving on.

Robbie has been struggling because of the power struggle above him by Mr. Mazzu and Coach Strickland. His demand to be a part of the musical has been honored, but he can hardly get in rehearsal time because the coach keeps pulling him out for extra practice. On one particularly testy Monday, Mr. Mazzu confronts Coach directly on the field about honoring their agreement to share custody. It does not go well. But the football players are not immune to feeling some type of way about Robbie’s split loyalties, either. When Robbie makes a plan with Lilette to run lines, his teammate #16 deeply guilts him into practicing a little longer, thus forcing him to miss his date-ppointment. (Sad for Lilette, who tells her mother it was not a date, even though it was not not a date.)

At the next rehearsal, Robbie is dropping lines like Sweeney Todd drops clients and it begins to take its toll on the cast — especially Lilette. (Rise is also doing this thing where it pretends nobody talks to each other before rehearsal, as if every afterschool theatre program doesn’t start with at least 15 chaotic minutes of people gossiping while eating chips.) Anyway, Robbie apologizes to Lilette after rehearsal and asks for a raincheck on their not-date date; Lilette, upset about having had to change shifts for him, tells him to meet her at work. Their subsequent milkshake-cute at the diner is very earnest and tender. Sparks fly and hands are held, and their rehearsal the following day is understandably fierce…until Lilette sees Robbie kissing another girl and her heart, like an alto harmony, is second priority once more.
(Page 2: Like you but only as a friend, Simon)

Fifth-lead Simon’s Catholic parents have, admirably, taken their disappointment over Spring Awakening not to the principal but to their family priest, who they hope will talk Simon into dropping out of the show on his own accord. (Take note: A rare good decision! Trying to quench the expression of your own child first rather than that of all other children!) You can tell Simon is deeply conflicted about his faith, his hobby, and the potential furtive exploration of his own sexuality that Spring Awakening is offering. They ultimately boil the conversation down to a simple question of whether Simon trusts Lou, which is unfortunate considering how we then smash-cut to Simon singing “Come cream away the bliss,” one of only about four lyrics in the whole show that would change Stephanie J. Block’s character’s blood pressure from a 9 to a 5.

Mazzu’s bad advice continues as he directs Simon and his scene partner Jeremy during their “Word of Your Body” rehearsal. “This whole scene is a dance, and this is the climax!” he says of the first lyric in a three-minute song. There turns out to be no need to direct the tension between Simon and Jeremy — it’s there, and it’s not going anywhere — but poor Simon can’t bring himself to kiss the boy, even as Jeremy gives him definitive eye-contact approval. After class, Jeremy makes it murkily clear whether he’s straight (“I admire you…as an actor!”) and asks if Simon wants to study together on Saturday at 8 p.m., which is decidedly NOT a study time. Simon is aware of this and, despite agreeing, gets cold feet and impulsively asks out Beard from Stranger Things. The clincher comes when Simon’s parents make another surprising move and inform him that he’ll be imminently transferring to a neighboring prep school. Ted Sutherland, the actor who plays Simon, is particularly impressive in what he’s doing with the role, and I imagine he’ll continue this endearing streak dealing with this news next week.

Then there’s Michael, who isn’t quite as angry as everyone else at Stanton Drama but still perhaps equally frustrated. He’s been changing clothes before rehearsal in the utility room but wants to make the leap into the boys’ dressing room. Mr. Mazzu enthusiastically allows him this request, and when Michael arrives in the boys’ room and makes his announcement, everyone just shrugs, taking a cue from the casualness of Robbie, if anything. Michael smiles! And while I want to praise the sweetness of this moment and the importance of seeing a popular football player nonchalantly accepting a trans theatre kid, Rise continues to treat Michael’s story line with affection but not attention. Given the national conversation around locker rooms last year alone, Michael’s very compelling, infrequently-seen plotline is a great story to tell but should have been far more than three brief, quick scenes to introduce and resolve itself before it just disappears. Brigadoon, this is not.

Finally, our last anxious child of the week is Mr. Mazzu’s son, Gordy, who is involved in a car accident that triggers his parents to consider that his drinking problem has returned. He denies this, but family dinner is nevertheless particularly tense, compounded by the still-unspoken elephant in the room named Maashous. The girls are nice to this boy — Sadie says he’s a better brother than Gordy, and Kaitlin calls her “uncouth,” a word she almost definitely learned from the muses in Hercules — but neither Gordy nor even Mrs. Mazzu is that keen on welcoming Maashous to the family. (It’s almost as if they’re treating him like he’s a strange kid who just showed up in their house one day without much explanation. Almost.)

Gordy’s real insecurity emerges when Mr. Mazzu approaches him during lunch, clearly a verboten thing in this relationship. Gordy unleashes his frustration over his father’s repeated attempts to get him to be a photographer or a musician, venting that because he’s not an artist, he feels like a disappointment to his dad and an outsider to his family. (FYI, there is a South Park episode literally about this.) The isolation from his family has driven Gordy to the bottle, or rather, the flask, a la the one Mr. Mazzu and Principal Ward discover in Gordy’s gym locker. In the ensuing intervention, the principal arranges to send Gordy to a rehab program, but Coach Strickland, who doesn’t put Gordy into games yet is still invited into the private parent meeting for some reason, sticks up for the kid and vows to utilize him more on the team.

And so that brings us back around to Mr. Mazzu once more, who I can acknowledge is certainly dealing with a lot in his role as distant father and generous adoptive father and beleaguered husband and rebellious school employee and contentious drama director and enemy of football and maybe also an English teacher sometimes. Should we feel a little bad for him when we consider his stress in full context like this? Yes, it’s tough! Should we be more lenient on him moving forward as he continues his efforts to crush all the goodwill around him? No, it’s rude! Should Diane Paulus revive Seussical? Yes, it’s time!

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