On the hit series "Glee," Lea Michele plays Rachel Berry, a plucky high-school sophomore whose Broadway-caliber singing voice affords her little protection from the dismissive eyes of her cool-kid classmates. Not unlike a pimply-faced Dungeons & Dragons master, Rachel's prestige within McKinley High's glee club works in inverse proportion to her popularity at school.
Thursday night at the Gibson Amphitheatre, where the cast of the music-heavy "Glee" performed the first of four live concerts there, Michele needed guarding just like her fictional alter ego. But as the actress strolled through the audience belting out "Don't Rain on My Parade," it wasn't bullies and bimbos her security retinue was keeping at arm's length; rather, it was frenzied "Glee" fans desperate for a close-up glimpse of this rising star.
In case the wall-to-wall media coverage hadn't already alerted you, television's ugly ducklings have become real-world swans, and Thursday's 70-minute performance had the triumphant, sometimes self-satisfied feel of a victory lap.
Much of "Glee's" success stems from the painfully precise way it captures an outsider's sensibility; at their most inventive, the show's musical numbers both embody and contravene its characters' anxieties and aspirations. At the Gibson, though, in front of a wildly enthusiastic crowd of supporters, the cast seemed less interested in psychological complexity than in old-fashioned showbiz razzmatazz.
And, hey, why not? Mercifully proceeding free of a tortured "Mamma Mia!"-style narrative, "Glee Live! In Concert" presented a series of songs pulled from throughout the show's first season, which concludes June 8 on Fox. Interstitial video bits featuring Matthew Morrison and Jane Lynch, who play "Glee's" principal adult characters, provided some plot-line pointers for the uninitiated (if indeed there were any in attendance Thursday). But mostly this was a celebration of the music that provides the show's pulse.
As performed by the singers and a five-piece band (as well as what sounded like several prerecorded backing tracks), that music obeyed no genre rules, mixing 1980s arena rock ("Don't Stop Believin' " and "Any Way You Want It," both by Journey), show tunes ("Defying Gravity," from "Wicked"), recent Top 40 pop ( Kelly Clarkson's "My Life Would Suck Without You," Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance") and the odd bit of old-school vocal jazz ("The Lady Is a Tramp").
Nor did the routines hail from one performative sphere: During "Bust Your Windows," for example, a crew of bikini-topped cheerleaders reenacted familiar video-vixen moves as Amber Riley (who plays the show's Mercedes Jones) delivered Jazmine Sullivan's R&B revenge anthem. Later, Kevin McHale did Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself" while seated in the wheelchair that his character, Artie Abrams, occupies. Where the former appeared to take place in a realm beyond the stage, the latter made do with McHale's immediate surroundings.
Most impressively Thursday, Michele and Chris Colfer (who plays Kurt Hummel) blurred those two approaches in a gloriously gender-bending version of "Defying Gravity" from the musical Wicked. The staging was straightforward: two singers facing each other singing a duet. Yet as their voices mingled seamlessly, one virtually indistinguishable from the other, the performance revealed a message that got at the core of "Glee's" runaway appeal: Great songs offer a refuge for those moments when real life doesn't feel big enough; they enable us to be whoever we envision ourselves to be.
In the middle of a night defined by flash-pot visuals and fist-pumping choruses, these two young pros offered something unexpected: a reminder of life before stardom.
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