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Buffy sings -- and the tune carries the day by Steve Johnson of Chicago Tribune

Now comes "Buffy": the musical episode, a great, giddy achievement that had this viewer grinning throughout in equal parts right-brain delight and left-brain amazement that the show's creator, cast and crew were actually able to pull it off.

For 60 TV minutes Tuesday (7 p.m., WPWR-Ch. 50), the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" gang will sing and dance their way through the evening's storyline, creating a kind of "Buffy Horror Picture Show."

With deliciously clever songs and more-than-passable music by creator/executive producer/head writer Joss Whedon, and with cast members doing all their own singing and dancing, it imagines a demon (Broadway star Hinton Battle) who infects the entire town of Sunnydale with the need to sing their innermost secrets and the ability to do so in clever rhymes.

It's audacious, absurd and thoroughly, wondrously incongruous.

It's also the best single hour of TV I've seen since the (considerably darker) "Homicide: Life on the Street" episode in which Vincent D'Onofrio played a man doomed to die by being pinned between a subway car and the side of the platform.

Selling people who haven't seen "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" on the UPN series is tough: "It's about this college girl, see, and she beats up monsters and wisecracks with her friends, and, really, it all adds up to a kind of subtle metaphor about how every adolescent/young adult feels alienated and alone, battling forces they don't really understand, but it's also offers amazingly clever commentary on pop culture and a lesson in girl power and . . ."

Most listening to such a soliloquy get that tune-out glaze in their eyes before the sentence even reaches "monsters." Many are making a mental note not to invite you over again.

It's a shame that "Buffy's" fantastical premise keeps it from getting respect from Emmy voters and the tens of millions of viewers who would love the show if they saw the show.

But give Whedon credit not only for the talent to create a delicious pop-culture treat like "Buffy," but also for the curiosity and ambition to continue to try to attract new viewers and, more important, challenge himself creatively.

Last season, it was a triumphant episode called "Hush," in which the characters spent most of the hour unable to speak.

Now the musical hour, "Once More with Feeling," raises the bar even higher. This is no mere episode with a few songs tossed in, but an all-out production to rival last TV season's "South Pacific" remake in which the episode's story and meaning are contained in the roughly 14 songs.

It begins with star Sarah Michelle Gellar, in the show's standard graveyard setting, performing a lovely song about her title character's ennui as a vampire slayer. "Every single night the same arrangement / I go out and fight the fight," she sings, as, with flawless choreography, she defeats -- ho-hum -- the usual demon assortment.

It progresses from there: love songs, power ballads, a dance homage to Audrey Hepburn in "Funny Face," a number the character who sings it dubs "a retro pastiche [that] is never going to be a breakaway pop hit." It builds to the big group number at the end, part triumph, part existential lament: "The battle's done / And we kind of won / So we sound our victory cheer / Where do we go from here?"

The eight minutes of dialog serve as a bridge from one number to the next, and they are -- like the song lyrics, like most of Whedon's writing -- so sharp the temptation is to just quote everything. Here, with restraint, is one line: A character has discovered the reason they are all singing is "some sort of Lord of the Dance. But not the scary one. Just a demon."

Bravo, as they say in the theater. And encore!

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