Ivy has the experience and the chops to play Marilyn, but Karen has an essential innocent quality along with the voice -- or so "Smash" wants us to believe. Problem is, the show is telling one story while struggling with another. We're meant to cheer for Karen as the ingenue whose gifts can't help but shine through and who struggles against the adversity of lecherous directors and catty co-stars, including a suddenly diva-ish and increasingly unstable Ivy.
But it's Hilty who's the actual talented underdog, a Broadway performer who played Glinda the Good Witch in "Wicked." McPhee's voice netted her a runner-up spot on "American Idol" and she's got more fame, but in terms of acting and charisma Hilty blows her out of the water.
The imbalance in talent creates a narrative undercurrent in which, instead of this seeming like the story of an up-and-comer set to get her big chance, it becomes one in which a newcomer is "All About Eve"-ing her way into the lead. And the two actresses have been given a dynamic that's reminiscent of another showbiz film, "Black Swan," with Ivy jumping into bed with Derek while Karen remains the uptight good girl who needs to get in touch with her own sensuality.
The big Marilyn dance number, below, that came toward the end of last night's episode draws parallels between the stress and insecurity Ivy's feeling and the difficulties the film icon she's playing experienced as her fame took off. But it really serves to highlight how much more appropriate a fit for the role Hilty is than McPhee's wounded-doe Karen. "Smash" is inexorably heading toward a scenario in which Karen gets her chance to shine, but unless she's capable of much more than she's shown on screen so far, it's going to sound more like the creaking of plot mechanics than a star finding her voice.