Does Katharine McPhee have the necessary chops for “Smash”?

Now that Fox’s Glee has broken the curse and proven that the musical genre can succeed on broadcast television, the race is on at other networks to find a Glee of their own. There are a few pilots getting that chance this development season: a pair of comedies and one drama — NBC’s promising Smash, which counts Steven Spielberg among its executive team.

Casting already is under way and Will & Grace’s Debra Messing has landed a prime role in the pilot, playing lyricist Julia in the project that follows the staging of a Broadway production — about the life of Marilyn Monroe — on all levels: writing, composing, casting, the business of Broadway as well as the personal lives of those involved.

According to Deadline, American Idol Season 5 runner-up Katharine McPhee has landed one of the most promising roles of the season — as Karen, a 23-year-old blonde who does everything right to land the part of Marilyn in the play within the show.

In the script I read, Karen Cartwright is in a loving, committed relationship with boyfriend Dev and is a by-the-book actress with sensitivity and common sense and passion who has what it takes to succeed and land the lead part — a role that would be the first for the rookie actress.

During auditions, Tom, the (gay) composer is wowed by Ivy, a longtime chorus girl whom Derek, the (straight) hotshot choreographer-director (to be played by FlashForward’s Jack Davenport) thinks is too old for the part. Derek, meanwhile, is impressed by Karen but doubts the newbie has the required sex appeal to truly pop as Marilyn.

As Karen battles Ivy for the part, Derek and Tom go head-to-head over the casting, with things eventually coming down to who’s willing to go above and beyond to land the role. Without giving too much of the script away, let’s just say that Karen isn’t as wholesome as she seems.

The script is smart and is unlike anything NBC currently has on the air right now. The writing — playwright Theresa Rebeck (Law & Order: Criminal Intent, NYPD Blue) penned the script based on an idea by Steven Spielberg — offers something for everyone: huge stage numbers with Hairspray producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron already on board; Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman attached to pen original material for the hourlong drama. Shaiman also conceived, wrote and composed Prop 8: The Musical and was the music arranger and orchestrator for 2007’s Hairspray. The pedigree for success is already there, but McPhee’s casting as Karen just doesn’t fit.

This is the most engaging script I’ve read so far this season and has the potential to be a huge hit, but the casting of McPhee as Karen is truly uninspired. While it’s understandable that NBC would want to go with a trained singer, the part is so much more than that. McPhee does have some acting experience, but roles in The House Bunny and an episode of CSI: NY doesn’t count for much. There are a slew of notable singers with acting chops — Norah Jones perhaps? Maybe even Mandy Moore? But casting the former Idol McPhee just fails to match the tone included in the Smash script.

With NBC undergoing a creative rebranding now that former Showtime president of entertainment Robert Greenblatt has taken over, McPhee’s casting to me already spells trouble for the promising project. This is a script that could drastically change the struggling network’s future, luring both smart adults and newer fans of the musical genre. Karen needs to be played either by a bigger name or a relatively unknown singer-actress with a voice for days — like Lea Michele was for Glee. To go with a bland choice like McPhee is disappointing.

Messing, however, is perfectly cast as the pretty, good-natured and logical Julia, who has a close friendship with the openly gay Tom. The script calls for quick banter among the longtime friends and their relationship does have a very Will & Grace vibe to it.

What do you think? Is McPhee a singer/actress you’re interested in seeing more of in a multilayered drama like Smash? Have you missed her in the past five years? Who would you like to see cast as Ivy and Tom?

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