Rise “Pilot” Review

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Spring Awakening holds a special place in my heart. I first learnt about the musical in 2011 and I have been obsessed with it since. The musical deals with delicate subject matter such as abortion, homosexuality, child abuse, rape, and so much more. I was lucky enough to combine Moritz’s monologue from the translated play with part of his monologue from the musical after Don’t Do Sadness / Blue Wind for my HSC Drama performance. Any text in English where we were allowed to choose our own source material, I chose Spring Awakening. I obsessed over the tragic stories of these characters, the important messages conveyed about how the parents and learning system failed these people, and how it seems like God’s humour to rip the Atheist Melchior’s friend and lover from his life.

It is shocking that NBC has picked up a television series that features this musical, its themes and songs, at the forefront. In context of the source material for this story, however, it makes sense why it was chosen (though I doubt any version of “Totally Fucked” will be released uncensored).

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Rise is based on the book Drama High, which follows journalist Michael Sokolove as he spends a year chronicling Lou Volpe, a teacher at the Harry S Truman High School, who revolutionised the drama program and adapted Broadway shows to be school-appropriate.

It’s hard to not draw comparisons to Fox’s Glee, which ran for six seasons, especially since the first episode of Rise feels beat for beat the same as the pilot episode for Glee. Glee originally started out following the story of Will Schuester in his quest to resurrect the Glee Club, a club he was a part of when he was in high school. The show was a pioneer for controversial content matter. It dealt with topics such as teen age pregnancy, homosexuality / transgender, under age drinking and a lot more. Over time, however, the series because a former shell of itself as it became less about the underdogs trying to prove themselves and more of an after school special show that was illogical and nonsensical with the music featuring songs of the week that did not progress the story but acted as popular music to get more money from iTunes sales.

The cast is full of recognisable faces as well as fresh faces. Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) stars as Lou Mazzuchelli, the English teacher who takes over the Drama Club. Auli’i Cravalho (Moana) is Lillette Suarez, who is cast as Wendla in the musical and whose mother is sleeping with her rivals father. Damon Gillespie is cast as Quarterback Robbie Thorne, who also has mother issues as his mother is incredibly unwell and it is touching to having a male lead character able to show vulnerability and care for a loved one.

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There are twelve main cast members of Rise and each one is focused on in the pilot, which makes things a bit crammed. In fact, as mentioned before much of the pilot for Rise feels like a rehash of the first episode of Glee. We have the teacher who wants to take over the musical theatre club. We have the girl who isn’t all that popular but has an amazing voice. We have the female rival. We have the gay kid who is unable to come out to his parents. We have the football star who is roped into joining the musical.

Rise is a ten hour series. There are only ten episodes in the first season. It makes sense then that a lot of details and character stories are crammed into the first hour. It is overwhelming trying to follow all these different plot threads with characters we have just barely met. It is messy. It is crowded. The show could have done with a few more episodes to allow some breathing room, to sprinkle out some of the story instead of cramming it down the audience’s throat.

The music from the pilot was wonderful. Auli’i Cravalho coming into Mama Who Bore Me and seeing her being able to reach deep inside and make the song so personal was delightful. Having Damon Gillespie turn All That’s Known into a rap ala Hamilton was confronting and I’m not quite sure I like this take on the source material. It is a refreshing angle, but it is one that isn’t necessary.

The series has a lot of promise. There’s so much to work with, especially if it adapts more of Spring Awakening‘s messages for a modern audience. I get attached to gay characters in shows so I am very eager to see Simon Saunders (played by Ted Sutherland) character arc this season as the in-the-closet religious teenager who is cast as Hänschen, the fifth male lead of Spring Awakening who has a love scene with another male.

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I would also like to see more from Rosie Perez’s character Tracey Wolfe, who was ousted as the Drama Club director for no reason other than being annoying, something which was not seen in the pilot and it just seems like her only crime so far is being an early obstacle in Lou’s story. She has the club, and Spring Awakening’s, back after some initial concerns. She is shown to be caring to theatre and to the students, as well as recognising potential problems that could arise from Lou’s amateur decisions.

I was scared going into this show because what happened to Glee was a train wreck and hurt me. I am sticking with the series because of my life for Spring Awakening and hope that the rest of the series is a bit more focused than this opening hour, and it deviates away from what Glee tried to be. Rise shows promise and I believe that in this end it certainly will be a special show.

Rise is available to stream on Stan every Wednesday.

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