The Disney+ series Encore! reunites cast members from a high school production to do the same show again, years later. It’s a smoky fireplace of a reality show that radiates warmth and consistently caused my eyes to water. Like high school, though, it’s easy to generalize about but its reality is far more complicated.
Of the three episodes I’ve seen so far—the pilot that aired on ABC two years ago, and the first two Disney+ episodes—is considerably different.
The dynamics that affect the production—and the episodes themselves—greatly depends upon the individuals involved. That’s true of any reality series, of course; seasons of Survivor or The Real World come to life or fade away based on their casting.
This show is exceptionally well-cast, both for the logistics of actually reuniting people who once did a play together in high school, and for who they are as people: complicated, still vulnerable, even when they project facades to suggest otherwise.
The reunions are sometimes joyful, but they are not people who peaked in high school and have been looking to relive their teen years for another week. Some of them were strangers to each other even when they were in high school, performing in the same play.
Zane, who plays the Beast in episode 2’s Beauty and the Beast, says, “I don’t want to do this. I hated high school. I tried to block out all these stupid memories.”
Of course, he does return to revisit those memories—but this time, he performs with his family watching. The cutaways to cast members’ friends and family in the audience were the among the most emotionally affecting moments for me; they’re so full of love, joy, and affection.
The first episode, which focuses on a production of Annie, feels like a meditation on the passage of time: the revival comes 23 years after the original, and the cast has a lot to work through a lot with each other and themselves, considering where they were and where they are now, what they’ve given up and what they have instead.
But episode two, which follows a production of Beauty and the Beast, is only 12 years after the original, so its cast members are still in their 20s, and aren’t as immediately reflective. (Their director spends time with them doing an exercise to talk with their high school selves, which is a fascinating exercise.)
While all the casts work with theatre pros—Broadway and off-Broadway directors, choreographers, and musicians—that episode adds one of the play’s original actors: Susan Egan, who created the role of Belle on Broadway.
She understands the characters so well that, while coaching the actors who play Belle and Mrs. Potts, she hones in on something that immediately unlocks a song, or a character’s movement, for the actor. I’d watch an entire series of her working with actors in regional productions: it’s remarkable teaching.
Even with the help of Broadway directors and trained actors as supporting casts, these are still high school-level productions. Okay, yes, there are probably better high school productions, and that’s probably one reason—besides time, of course—that the editing just shows us fragments of the actual play.
“I wouldn’t pay a lot of money for it,” music director Adam Wachter says in the Annie episode, “but I’d still want to see it.”
Encore!, though, is both worth paying for (it’s only available on Disney+) and something I look forward to seeing more of.
Kristen Bell isn’t doing an encore of her original Encore! role
In the ABC pilot, Kristen Bell was a constant presence, like Tim Gunn in Project Runway, offering advice and mentorship, and essentially hosting the show.
In episode 1 of the Disney+ series, she shows up for the performance; in episode 2, she’s nowhere to be found except in the introduction and credits. (New episodes will drop every Friday; Disney Plus provided the first two episodes, today’s and Friday’s, to critics.)
That’s understandable: the logistics of actually spending a week creating a production seem challenging enough without also working around an accomplished and busy actor’s schedule.
The production comes together in less than a week, which is completely nuts. There are supporting actors, and a crew handling the sets and staging, but still: it’s a lot of work.
Encore! gives us flashes of that work, but breezes past the bulk of it, unless it offers a moment to dive deeper into a character. The show is more about the people than the play itself.
What’s consistent is how uncannily cast the show and plays are, starting with the star of Annie, who is actually named Annie. Daddy Warbucks is played by Jeremy, who survived childhood cancer and hast mostly gone bald, but still fears total baldness because that’s the one thing he couldn’t control during his treatment.
In Beauty and the Beast, Gaston is played by a cocky “mentalist” who’s always in performance mode, and does a palm reading of a fellow cast member and declares that she has health problems. When she later has an allergic reaction, he uses that moment to affirm his diagnosis.
These connections to their characters may be the product of clever editing, and the show does go past that surface. But perhaps the cast members were drawn to the characters for a reason.
Before the cast of Annie perform, Kristen Bell tells the cast that acting “is the time I feel most alive.” She adds, “I just love sharing this community with other people who know what it feels like to be on stage and feel like someone else, but also more yourself than you’ve ever felt.”
That certainly seems to be the case for these cast members, who also make it clear that they may not have known themselves or each other.
In the Annie episode, Sarah says, “But we didn’t know that about each other in high school. None of us shared, and we weren’t taught to like open up and communicate—so you’re thinking that you’re the only person dealing with your own struggles, but, you know, there’s probably so many other kids.”
And Jarron says, “Everybody has their struggles, no matter how perfect you think their life is, or how they make it look like they got it.”
In Encore!, they’re no longer pretending with each other, only on stage, and it makes for first-rate reality television.