San Francisco Chronicle
Rom-com musical falls short for its star power
The talent behind Hulu’s musical romantic comedy series “Up Here” is insane.
“Dear Evan Hansen” playwright Steven Levenson and the married “Frozen” songwriting team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez are among the show’s creators (“Up Here” is adapted from the couple’s stage production of the same name). The pilot is directed by Thomas Kail, who steered “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” to Tony Awards and worked with Levenson on the outstanding “Fosse/Verdon” miniseries.
Despite the creative brain trust, though, “Up Here” is far from genius. There are just enough smart riffs on the core premise — how the voices in our heads inhibit us from achieving love and career goals — and sometimes enough witty wordplay in song lyrics to keep matters watchable.
But the charms and formidable vocal chops of leads Mae Whitman and Carlos Valdes can’t quite rise above the scenario’s trite 1990s romantic misunderstandings and followyour-heart cliches. “Up Here” does a better job with the personified thoughts gimmick, but still can’t help coming off like a slightly less vulgar “Herman’s Head” with show tunes. It’s enough to make you long for a “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”
“Arrested Development” and “Good Girls” alum Whitman plays Lindsay, an unfulfilled Vermont Gen Xer who leaves her cartoonish fiance for New York when she wins what turns out to be a zero-prestige short story contest. Determined to pursue her literary and carnal dreams anyway, Lindsay moves into a Manhattan clothes closet. The voices that keep blocking her, writing and otherwise, are embodied by Katie Finneran as her people-pleaser mom, John Hodgman as her worrywart coroner dad and Sophia Hammons as a gossipy tween pal.
Valdes’ (CW’s “The Flash”) Miguel has a better fleshed-out set of mind people: Andréa Burns as his late super-supportive mother, Emilia Suárez as an undermining teenage bully and (best-performed of the lot) Scott Porter as a bad advice-spouting alpha male. The latter looks like the guy Miguel caught in bed with a co-worker to whom he was about to propose. That trauma made him quit his video game designing job and become an investment banker.
Lindsay and Miguel meet, um, “cute” while she’s guarding the door of a bar’s bathroom (the show has a fetish for public toilet copulation). Then the writer and banker soon have their hands in each other’s pants until he runs away in tears. Lindsay experienced her first orgasm anyway, so — spoiler alert — you can bet these two semi-credible neurotics will hook up, lie to each other, try keeping it casual, get jealous, break up and totally fall in love by the time the Y2K rolls around.
He’ll also have conflicts about his corporate ladderclimbing. She’ll betray him by writing about their mortifying first night (he’ll get angry, then forgive her, establishing a pattern). People outside her head will tell Lindsay she writes well and she’ll compose a children’s book that’s an allegory for her self-image. Another musical theater legend, Brian Stokes Mitchell, shows up as a successful author/illustrator who mentors and maybe seduces Lindsay, then belts out the series’ best song, “So Many Ways,” which rubs in all Miguel’s fears of failure.
Valdes also nails a hesitant love anthem, and Whitman throws herself into a comic torch song; the leads harmonize well together on such refrains as the signature “Can I Ever Know You,” and the head characters even whip up fine choruses of both the musical and Greek variety. But the production numbers accompanying all this don’t exactly showstop.
The musical numbers too often consist of dancers energetically jumping around in New York street, club and business wear, on unimpressive stages or collapsing wall sets, or moving from subway up to sidewalk with little imagination. Overall, certain characters and gags get lost in the choreographed mental overload.
And while Lindsay and Miguel’s issues go to some dark places, they too get glossed over by narrative forgetfulness, superficial optimism and rom-com contrivances. That makes for light entertainment with a few good hooks. But considering the star power, “Up Here” really should have been more mindblowing.