'Up Here’ review: A sweet musical series from the minds behind 'Hamilton' and 'Frozen'
If you like your musicals earnest and your romantic comedies cheesy, chances are you'll enjoy Up Here.
Hulu's latest original series features a bevy of musical hard-hitters behind the wheel, including Hamilton director Thomas Kail, tick, tick...BOOM! screenwriter Steven Levenson, and Frozen and WandaVision songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. This dream team for theater kids guides viewers through a love story between Lindsay (Mae Whitman) and Miguel (Carlos Valdes), two lost souls whose insecurities manifest themselves as nagging inner voices. There is singing, there is dancing, and there are many laughs along the way.
Up Here gives shape to the voices in our heads.
At first glance, Lindsay and Miguel may seem like your average rom-com leads: She's an aspiring writer freshly arrived in New York, and he's an investment banker trying to get ahead. But what sets them apart are their inner voices, which Up Here externalizes as a Greek chorus of disapproving figures from Lindsay and Miguel's lives. For Lindsay, these are her parents (Katie Finneran and John Hodgman) and her best friend from middle school (Sophia Hammons). Miguel's voices are his mother (Andréa Burns), a high school crush (Emilia Suárez), and the man who slept with his longtime girlfriend (Scott Porter).
For both Lindsay and Miguel, these voices represent their baggage, their history, and all the times they've been told to keep their true thoughts and feelings to themselves. The voices belittle their every move and force them into a tight box of what they think a person should be.
As a concept, the voices are a fascinating storytelling device. However, the execution sometimes falls flat. Since these voices are expressions of Lindsay and Miguel's worst thoughts and fears, they tend to feel one-note: Porter's voice is toxic masculinity personified, while Burns is a smothering mom throughout. They are concepts, not characters with arcs. However, each performer delivers a truly fun turn, and the moments when they pop up in scenes like musical jump scares often generate the biggest laughs and the best in-show reactions.
Neither Miguel nor Lindsay inform each other of their inner conflicts as they jump into, then out of, then back into a relationship. But that lack of communication speaks to the key question of the show: Can you ever really know someone, given everything that goes on in their head? And can Lindsay and Miguel ever really know themselves, or are they too busy trying to meet others' expectations? Up Here dances around these themes with an occasionally frustrating narrative circularity, and the story that takes a few episodes to truly begin hitting all the right notes.
Mae Whitman, Carlos Valdes, and musical theater are the main draws of Up Here.
However, even when Up Here's story stumbles, Whitman and Valdes are here to pick it right back up. The two deliver lovely, committed performances and share sweet chemistry to boot. Whitman does a wonderful job with Lindsay's journey of self-discovery, leading to moments where she is able to showcase her vulnerability and her killer comedic chops. The same can be said of Valdes as Miguel: While Miguel may at first seem like a stone-cold Wall Street killer — a "tiger shark," as one voice puts it — Valdes and the show peel back his layers until we see someone afraid of loving too hard and losing too much.
Whitman and Valdes, as well as everyone playing their inner voices, also shine in Up Here's many musical numbers. With Anderson-Lopez and Lopez penning these tunes, it's no surprise that you'll find yourself bopping along (although the numbers lack the earworm quality of "Let It Go" or "Agatha All Along"). Up Here brings these songs to life with Sonya Tayeh's versatile choreography, along with staging that ranges from a street sing-along to a quest through a video game. Standouts include a grungy Alanis Morissette-esque number about embracing your inner bad girl to a sinister dance in what I can only describe as a Dr. Seuss sex club circus. (The Dr. Seuss figure is played by Broadway legend Brian Stokes Mitchell, a delightful addition to Up Here's ensemble.)
Up Here carves out its own space in the landscape of sitcom musicals. It's not a jukebox musical like Glee or Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, and not a musical pastiche like Schmigadoon! A closer comparison may be Rachel Bloom's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which similarly depicted characters' inner conflicts through elaborate musical numbers. However, while Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's songs were sharply satirical, many of Up Here's tend towards earnest "I Want" songs that service Lindsay and Miguel's desire for love and self-fulfillment. (A performance where Lindsay begs people to like her while lying on a piano did give me major Rebecca Bunch vibes, though.) Up Here may never reach the levels of brilliance seen in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but its sweetness and two excellent leads make for a toe-tapping, heartwarming watch.