Simon is forced to leave the show and the school — and Mr. Mazzu is forced to think of someone else's feelings for once.
Stephanie! J! Block! It’s always a treat to see a real Theatre Person nab a supporting role on network television, but this week’s Rise needn’t devote more than a few moments of screen time to impending Cher for her to walk away with the whole episode as devout, distressed, de-lovely Mrs. Saunders. In fact, both Mother and Son Saunders aced the acting game this week in an hour that explored ripped dreams and tested faiths, while the ever-dependable Rosie Perez and even Casey Johnson’s surly Gordy (a character who could have very quickly become annoying were he not actually the most empathetic member of his insane family) helped lift all boats. Dare I suggest that this week’s episode was the strongest Rise so far? Dare I pose that it was because it was the least Lou-heavy yet? I dare!
Much of the action this week revolves around Simon’s forced decision to leave Stanton, an announcement he makes to the drama club right after marking his way through the last chorus of “The Bitch of Living.” Poor Simon says his parents only want him to receive the esteemed collegiate prep of St. Francis. Everyone knows it’s because they just don’t want him to go to a school that makes him sing “cream away the bliss” at 4 on a Monday. Lilette is understandably hurt by Simon’s surprise news, as she only became a theatre person after he encouraged her to be one. Jeremy is bummed, as he now has to cream away the bliss alone. Mr. Mazzu’s reaction is especially outrageous, as God forbid anyone crush his dream when he has put so much hard work and energy into crushing the dreams of so many.
Unsurprisingly, it’s Ms. Wolfe who shows the most heart when she tearfully embraces Simon in their farewell. Any theatre kid will recognize it: that one hug you’ll give to your teacher that year, the Hug of opening night or perhaps graduation or the first time you visit as an alumni. The relationship between a student and a drama teacher rarely manifests physically, save for this Hug, which is this sort of 10-second-long accumulation of everything you want to say to this person who loves the thing you love, who guided you through the tumultuous adventure of putting on a show. This is the theatre teacher/drama kid relationship I want to see. This is what Rise should be about. But nope. Instead we get Mr. Mazzu, who pushed Ms. Wolfe out of her job and indirectly got a kid transferred out of the school and the club that he loves. He’s the villain of Rise, no question, and no matter how terrible he’s been so far, I’m certain that there are 24601 awful things he’s still bound to do.
Enter: his first production meeting! Ms. Wolfe is there, patient as a saint, along with costume designer Denise Strickland, who bristles with Ms. Wolfe (perhaps a leftover feud from their da-a-ays at Shiz?). There’s also a listless man who will build the sets, as well as Maashous, representing lighting despite apparently not actually being the lighting designer on the show. It seems to be the first time Mr. Mazzu dictates his design vision to the rest of the team, and it’s a doozy: an expensive-sounding contemporary-Victorian hybrid set that somehow depicts steel mills, diners, a church, and a costume aesthetic that bridges the gap between 19th-century Germany and 21st-century Target. Ms. Wolfe reminds Lou they have $750.
Privately, she offers a pragmatic budget that cuts back on the customized Victorian embroidery but makes sure that the show, you know, happens. But of course, Mr. Mazzu refuses to compromise and finds another new way to insult her life’s work. “I want this to be good! I want it to feel special! I don’t want it to look thrown together and second-rate like all the other shows that get done here,” says the a–hole English teacher to the hard-working woman whose career he’s already usurped and now just discredited. Later, he decides he might have to apologize to her and finds Ms. Wolfe brooding in the props room, where she schools him on the history of Stanton’s theatre department as manifested by the accumulation of props over the years. A blossoming branch from Midsummer Night’s Dream. The crystal ball from Wizard of Oz. Something she calls “the broom from Music Man.” (FYI that’s not a thing.) Despite having burned half of these beloved treasures last week, Ms. Wolfe’s greater point is that she cares about this theatre department deeply and considers it her family, and Mr. Mazzu has effectively destroyed people’s lives with his ridiculous, self-involved, out-of-control vision. She’s been reading my recaps!!!
So, in another attempt to rectify things he doesn’t necessarily believe he’s responsible for breaking, Mr. Mazzu takes his reconciliation tour to Simon’s parents, but their minds are firmly made up about Simon’s transfer, even as they confirm that it’s definitely actually about the big gay abortion suicide show and not remotely about college prep. Mr. Saunders is harsher than Mrs. Saunders, and so Mr. Mazzu redirects his final appeal, engaging in some very loaded silent pleading with the aforementioned Stephanie J. Block. His mouth is saying, “Don’t do this.” His eyes are saying, “I loved you in Falsettos.”
In one last futile attempt to fix the damage and get his Hanschen to stay on this hardbody, Mr. Mazzu apologizes directly to Simon and even OFFERS TO EDIT THE PLAY to keep him at Stanton. “We don’t have to do that story line!” he says, demonstrating a sudden, truly flabbergasting willingness to compromise despite having previously steamrolled any other person who even dared to interfere with his vision.
Still, Simon says his goodbyes. He continues to attend rehearsal, presumably standing in for Robbie during football practice, hence why we find him singing Melchior’s “Left Behind” as a sort of grander meta-commentary on his own departure. (One thing I will note is that “Left Behind” is THE big funeral moment in Spring Awakening and would be the must-sing song to accompany a Rise character’s death; Robbie’s mother’s fate doesn’t look particularly promising, but if the show is already using this song for something as emotionally threat-level-medium as a kid just transferring schools, then it makes me feel slightly more optimistic that we might not be going down a tragic path on this show. Or at the very least, Mr. Mazzu will not be killing anyone off in a freak dramaturgical accident.)
But lo! Simon’s farewells, like Bright Star‘s closing, were premature. All episode long, Mrs. Saunders has watched from afar as her son languished over the decision, and it’s fair to say she’s also been looking inward and has, like Laura Bell Bundy in “So Much Better,” deeply struggled. She impulsively decides to drive over to Lou’s house and, like the Best Featured Actress race at the 2015 Tonys, force a decision. “My grandmother used to say, ‘I don’t care if you don’t believe in the same thing as me, but you have to believe in something.’ And I need to know what you believe in,” she pleads. Mr. Mazzu replies, “I believe in the kids I teach. I believe in the truth. I believe in helping them to grow up in the sun and not in the shadows.” And so Stephanie J. Block tearfully thanks him and drives away, leaving us to assume that she has seemingly reversed her decision about Simon and, in doing so, has become Rise’s very first character to be truly, meaningfully impacted by one of Mr. Mazzu’s Etsy quotes.(NEXT: The telephone case hour)
Rise‘s third episode also gives us a better sense — although still a cloudy one — of what’s going on between Vanessa Suarez and Coach Strickland, whose cautious dance in some ways mirrors the tentative relationship blossoming between her daughter, Lilette, and his sports-son, Robbie.
Coach has made the first overture, visiting Vanessa at the diner and apologizing to her for the social fallout of their adulterous pas de deux. As the world’s cheapest consolation gift, he gives her a bedazzled phone case. Touched that he would go all the way to a mall kiosk for her, Vanessa lets him put it on her phone, marking the most insertion we’ll probably get on this show.
Meanwhile, Lilette is quickly turning cold toward Robbie, having spotted him kissing a girl who is not her. Vanessa hears secondhand about their diner date and enthusiastically inquires about Lilette’s relationship with Robbie, only for Lilette to relay to her mother that she was correct in her general lifelong mistrust of men. Is it a slight overreaction to the situation? Sure, maybe a little. But Vanessa realizes just how bad of an example she’s historically set for her daughter on that front, and in turn, she immediately returns the phone case to Coach at their next furtive meeting (which takes place near the football field, a very dangerous liaison indeed).
Lilette does agree to run lines again with Robbie, meeting at a pizza place and keeping her fuse short until Robbie receives an urgent call from the hospital about a fall his mother has taken. Lilette’s mood instantly shifts, and she offers to go with Robbie as he rushes to be at his mother’s side. (Take note of the way Mrs. Thorne’s reception of Lilette matches the enthusiasm Vanessa displayed when she first heard about Robbie — that’s where Jason Katims’ showrunning touch comes nicely into play.) Hours later, Lilette has seen a sensitive new side to Robbie, and the discovery seems to allay her frustration that she’s but an understudy to the romantic lead already in his life.
Last and least, let’s talk Maashous. Let me be clear: There’s nothing to actually dislike about Maashous (aside from the name Maashous, but you knew that). He is super cute and super sweet and I want nothing more than for him to be adopted by a nice bald man and his secretary and live in their mansion in Depression-era New York. Unfortunately, though, Maashous’ very presence in the Mazzuchelli house is inextricably tied to the worst, most impulsive side of Mr. Mazzu, and so Maashous has had to work extra hard to be doubly endearing to the audience as a person and not just a project. And he has.
Gail shares a few moments with Maashous, bonding over things like piano and backyard lighting, and she quickly develops a soft spot for him even before beginning to find out what his life as a foster kid is like. The truth both Gail and Lou are facing is that they can’t really afford to adopt this additional teen into their lives — Lou works at a school, she teaches piano, they already have three children, and also he likes lighting — but her resolve is cracking, as is Mr. Mazzu’s.
He pays a visit to Maashous’ foster mom and learns that she’s not particularly concerned about his well-being. She’s not good, she’s not bad, she’s just nice, and Mr. Mazzu seems reluctant to send him back…so he doesn’t. Back in the Ritz Lighting Booth, Mr. Mazzu abandons his plans to kick him out of his house and instead promotes him to lighting designer (he…wasn’t already?) while back at home, Maashous hangs Gail’s deck lights. Both Mr. and Mrs. Mazzu seem to agree that they can’t send Maashous back to a foster home. Not because he hung the deck lights, obviously, but also not not because of it.
And so the episode ends with Gordy, who has been as miserable as ever doing brunt work for Coach Strickland until he learns that his new athletic approach to rehabilitation is not going to involve any discussion of feelings. Gordy’s into it, and it explains why he’s in a relatively optimistic mood when he joins the whole family in a game of street football. Whatever that is.