'Encore!': TV Review

A winner for theater kids and those who love them.
11/12/2019

Disney+ reunites high school musical casts from decades earlier to restage their moment of theatrical glory, with Kristen Bell as presenter.

This one goes out to all of the high school theater kids — whether budding thespians or simply outsiders looking for a community of like-minded oddballs; anybody who's ever gamely persevered through that high note your pipes just can't reach or that piece of choreography your two left feet couldn't execute; or anybody who's ever stood sweating in the spotlight as a co-star flubbed a line of dialogue (or flubbed that line of dialogue yourself) or sat in the wings playing cards while waiting for that one number in the second act where you have enough of a solo that if your parents are paying attention they might just be able to pretend they hear your voice so that they can tell you how good you were afterwards.

If any of those moments ring true to you, if you still hear a song decades later from the musical you did as an underclassman and announce, to nobody in particular, "That's MY show," prepare to find yourself immediately hooked by Disney+'s Encore! More than that, prepare to find yourself pulled into the nostalgia-fueled premise so completely you won't just want to watch the show, you'll want to be on the show.

The hook: Producers reunite grown-ups and give them five days to restage the musicals they did in high school years or decades earlier. There's no prize. There's no bar for success. The play, or in this case the musical, is the thing. For many of these now-adults, it's an opportunity to revisit a thing that they loved, a peak moment from a complicated youth. For some, there's the opportunity for redemption, the chance to stop having that nightmare where you forget your entrance or skip a verse, leaving the orchestra confused. For some, there's a chance to revisit a dream they set aside for work, family and kids. For some, there's the added weight of seeing the long-estranged best friend or long-forgotten mentor or laying eyes on the long-term ex who broke their heart. And then at the end? They do a musical! And maybe it's astonishingly good and maybe it's excruciatingly bad and it hardly matters.

You might remember Encore! premiered in late 2017 as a barely promoted ABC special, a proof-of-concept reuniting the cast of a 1997 West Covina high school production of Into the Woods. I was hooked then, and seeing the first two episodes of the Disney+ incarnation has done nothing to dissuade me from feeling that even with flaws aplenty, this is such a good and pure concept for a show that I'll watch as much as you put in front of me.

Qualitatively, this is an inherently uneven show. Merely packaging the returning talent for each episode is hard enough. There's no way of knowing if they'll be good TV once they're together.

The premiere brings together a San Diego area school's 1996 production of Annie and it's full of memorable "characters," including the erstwhile Daddy Warbucks who had cancer in high school and finds the experience of having to shave his head again triggering, and an Annie who spent years trying, without success, to make it on Broadway and is now given the opportunity to show her family the life she once dreamed of. It's a lovely arc for an hour, culminating in the tear-jerking expressions on the faces of children watching their parents having this unique opportunity.

The second episode, going back less far to a 2007 Texas production of Beauty and the Beast, isn't nearly as good and yet it's still largely satisfying. This installment is a reminder that high school musicals are, and I know this sounds obvious, amateur productions. So far, Encore! hasn't done an episode set at a performing arts school and I hope they never do. The energy of a high school show is based on unevenness — the bitterness of the three supporting players who thought they should have been the lead, the lead who doesn't completely understand how they got the part in the first place and the two co-stars who were hooking up in the wings in what they thought was a secretive location.

I could have watched the events of the Annie episode play out over two or three episodes. The Beauty and the Beast episode was fine at an hour, perhaps even padded, but never boring. The reality is that the perfect version of this show is going to result in an episode so packed with endearing elements that you'd wish they had six hours to chart every beat of the process.

I'm not sure we could ever get that perfect version.

You're never going to be able to get every major castmember from a 20-year-old show to take a week to come back and do it again, so episodes have seven or eight featured players and they don't always have relationships of any sort, because it's possible they never did. Producers are forced to fill out the cast with professionals who are necessary for the one-night-only staging, but have to be completely ignored for the TV show. The choice of established outside directors and choreographers is a bit odd, though music director Adam Wachter, offering continuity across both episodes, is a breakout star. I'd also add that anybody who has ever done high school theater knows that the student crew and stage managers are every bit as integral to the show as actors and Encore! has yet to find a place for them.

The show is also awkwardly halfway between levels of contrivance. There's one hypothetical approach that's virtually verite, where you just let the cameras roll and follow the trials and tribulations, maybe with a couple talking-head moments for added empathy. Then there's the other end of the spectrum where you force confrontations between the long-separated couples, where you force the people who had crushes on each other into unnatural proximity and hope to kindle sparks. Encore! doesn't commit to either of those extremes and, instead, you get a few forced conversations in which these civilians can barely convincingly articulate their talking points — "For you, which is more sad: Tonight being over or 1996 being over?" — but mentions of friendship-ending fights or petty squabbles are introduced and then never explored.

It should be added that Kristen Bell is the big-name executive producer and presenter of the series (Jason Cohen is the creator), but she's surely not a reason to watch. She offers generic introductions to both episodes and attended the production of Annie. This is not to criticize Bell for her lack of presence. She's busy. Just don't expect her to have any meaningful capacity on Encore! and you won't be disappointed.

Chances are that if you're in the Encore! target audience, you won't be disappointed regardless. You might be jealous that you're not on the show, but you won't be disappointed. My job is often to get caught up in the flaws of a show. Here, I found myself happily paying them no heed.

Premieres: Tuesday (Disney+)