In each episode of this new Disney+ series, the cast of a high school production reunites years later to perform their musicals once more, only this time under the tutelage of Broadway stars, singing coaches and choreographers. However, some find that returning to high school is just as hard as putting on a show.
Encore!, the new reality show exclusive to Disney+, has an undeniably winning premise rife with potential. Originally a one-off special that aired on ABC in 2017, Disney was smart to pick up the concept for their new streaming service and take it to series. For one, it gives the service its own rival to Netflix’s hit Queer Eye, which shares its uplifting ‘rebirth’ style approach to reality television with Encore!. Also, with executive producers Kristen Bell (Frozen, The Good Place) and Will Gluck (Annie , The Michael J. Fox Show), the series has some admirable pedigree behind it and the passion for the stage shines through in every episode. With a premise as ambitious as this, however, the show exposes one interesting side-effect in its execution: what is more interesting – the high school, or the musical?
This conceptual disparity is at the heart of watching Encore!, and what starts out as quite fluffy fare in its first episode quickly hits such a conundrum by its second. The first episode, centred on a class of ’96 recreating their show of Annie, is relatively straight forward – the cast is introduced to us, reintroduced to each other, and gradually builds towards an abridged performance of the final show. It takes the premise at face value, and is perfectly fine but somewhat forgettable stuff. This dynamic changes in the next episode, however, in which a class of 2007 reunite to stage Beauty and the Beast. The focus shifts: while we still watch the three phases of meet, train and perform, the interpersonal conflicts of the group come much further to the forefront. The school’s resident theatre star must face again that she wasn’t picked for the role of Belle, but Mrs Potts, and that Belle was instead was given to a timid newcomer with a brilliant voice. The man who played Gaston is now a mentalist, and in one scene he reads the palm of Mrs Potts’ actress, revealing to her that she is not in her best health. This bizarre moment peaks in an unexpected climax where she has an allergic reaction to her costume and must be rushed to the hospital. The return of the group’s old theatre teacher emerges fraught emotional baggage when it is revealed he became the surrogate parent to one of the actresses who had no father. This same woman once dated the actor for Beast, who struggled with bullying and anger as a teen. He desperately wanted to be like their teacher and go on to become one himself, only for this dream to never realise. In a wonderfully triumphant moment, the original Broadway actress for Belle, Susan Egan, trains the group and brings a driving spark of passion that ignites their old love for the stage. It all builds towards a beautiful rendition of the show that is laced with the personal drama of the group. It also helps that the episode, despite giving us much more valuable time with the cast, somehow allows the time to show more of the final performance at the end.
Unfortunately, for every episode like Beauty and the Beast, where the personalities and challenges of the cast shine through to a fist-pumping finale, there are episodes like the later High School Musical that go back to fumbling the balance a bit. It is always entertaining, well produced and directed, (and without any of the synthetic emotion that reality TV often plays with), but not every episode can walk the fine line that the premise creates. Other highlights, like the class of ’90 doing Grease, strike that balance seamlessly, and it shows how eccentrically interesting Encore! can be when it hits all its strides. These other episodes, though, noticeably seem to struggle to find enough interest in the cast, the final performance, or both, and at worst you are left not really feeling like you saw much of a show at all. But when it works, it really works, and it will make any viewer, be they theatre kids at heart or stalwart audience members only, want to jump on stage and experience the thrill of performance.
Thankfully, the show’s area for improvement is abundantly clear. Encore! has currently opted to go for a new class and play every week, but this creates more problems than it solves. Perhaps not all classes provided enough material to fill out more than one episode, but the ones that do, like Beauty and the Beast and Grease, I would love to have spent more time with. What’s more, we never get to see the full final performance, instead only a shortened down edit. Perhaps splitting each school into three episodes, one for each of the phases I mentioned prior, would allow us to know the personalities of the cast further, offering more time to balance their experiences and broadcast the full performance. For now, though, Encore! is inconsistent but often very fun, and is definitely worth a watch for anyone who enjoys the stages of both theatre and high school.
Author: Tom, Chelsea store