SOUND OFF: GLEE Chokes, But Shakes It Out
Rachel doesn't seem likely to be headed to New York and NYADA after all - nope, not this time; not after that. Mucking up her major shot at Broadway glory - at least as far as high school auditions go - by messing up the words to "Don't Rain On My Parade" from FUNNY GIRL; her anthem, no less - the focus on GLEE's appropriately titled "Choke" episode brought to mind a lyric from Stephen Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, itself a musical about the sacrifices naive young Broadway hopefuls make to get what they thought we wanted - "Facing facts, / Not escaping them, / Still with dreams, / just reshaping them. / Growing up…." And that is Season Three of GLEE in a nutshell - the senior members of New Directions learning to let go of childhood things - and high school - and move ahead into the unknown world of adulthood and maturity; whether the future may bring college, career or, well, pool-cleaning. With more musical theatre references per minute than any episode of the twenty so far in GLEE S3, "Choke" was filled with the stylized storytelling and absurd, although always appreciable surprises along the way that collectively make it consistent, near-constantly compelling as an enterprise (if sporadically questionable in its execution). No, no, no - GLEE has not flagged in the least sixty-odd episodes into the series so far, although the ratings may have slightly. Last night's GLEE - directed by busy TV director Michael Uppendahl (who also helmed Sunday's MAD MEN) and penned by MAD MEN alum Marti Noxon - was a good example of the shifting focus and repeated reinvention that keeps the series fresh and entertaining, week after week, with the comedy as fearless, edgy and biting as ever. The strengths still shine and the inconsistencies are not as pronounced as they once were - S3 may be the series best yet, all in all; choke or choked-up.
School's Out Forever
Comprising deliciously campy albeit genuinely affectionate references to Michael Crawford, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Liza Minnelli, Hugh Jackman, Kander & Ebb, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, CHICAGO, FUNNY GIRL, THE BOY FROM OZ, MY FAIR LADY and much more, this was the most Broadway-themed episode so far this season as far as the sheer number of name-checks and sly, wry winks to the Great White Way go, and that emphasis was not merely limited to the plot devices and character machinations - no, it infiltrated the songstack, as well, with songs sung from all of the aforementioned classic theatrical staples. Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) failed to set fire to "The Music Of the Night" from Broadway's biggest hit, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and, Kurt reneged on his promise to Rachel (Lea Michele) to perform it for the actual NYADA audition, opting instead for an eleventh-hour substitution of a spirited cover of Peter Allen's "The Boy Next Door" - a showstopper which Hugh Jackman famously brought to instant Broadway iconography and well-earned elephant-riding and gold-lame-clad Tony glory. Yet, the audition we have been waiting three years to see occur by the brightest of McKinley's seniors was a slap of brutal, cold, brisk reality - Rachel ruined her chance at the premiere musical theatre school in GLEE-land with a total flub-fest. Whoopi Goldberg expertly played her short scenes as grand dame diva supreme Carmen Tibideaux, coldly cutting Rachel off after two cringe-worthy eight bar demonstrations of miserable musical muck-ery. Acting as a smart and shrewd comment on how harsh real show business can ultimately be - and how quickly one can lose one's only chance - the juxtaposed auditions of Chris and Rachel, one unrepentantly triumphant and the other uncomfortably substandard, also acted as evidence of the tricks up mastermind Ryan Murphy's sleeve for the supposedly and purportedly "game-changing" Season Four of the hit Fox musical dramedy series; tricks which supposedly somehow, someway will manage to retain a handful of the core players soon graduating - namely Rachel, Kurt and Finn (Cory Monteith) - in the core cast of characters on the show. How he will do so remains to be known - and graduation is approaching fast.
With only three episodes left of the impressive Season Three, GLEE unveils new shocks and takes us on affecting and intriguing journeys time and time again and, if for nothing else, we can always rely on it to give us a meaty musical meal with a generous helping of heart and a sweet treat or two, too, to top it all off and make it all go down smoothly every Tuesday from Fall to Spring - generally juggling genres and styles with aplomb and assurance (at least this season). Certainly more than the first two seasons, an overall tone is struck and carried throughout any given episode; at least more often than not - if not the episode arc or season/series as a whole, as seems to be mandatory for it to survive giventhe variety show nature of the series as it has presented itself thus far. Undoubtedly, GLEE has been far more steady this season than in any othe before it as far as season and series development of plot, themes, music and stoytellin go - and the focus seems more evenly spread and wide-ranging, as well, which allows for ample exploration of character, theme, music and the occasional excursion or three, too. Last night, for example, gave us new glimpses of Coach Beiste (Dot Marie Jones) and Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) we would have never even imagined and both actresses mined the emotionally rich and culturally pertinent ground of spousal abuse to poignant and powerful - potentially Emmy-worthy - effect. The humor never lets up and Brittany (Heather Morris) has the timing of a vaudevillian, with Santana (Naya Rivera) remaining one of the show's standouts for good reason - both stirking comedic and dramatic notes in their girl-group renditions of "Cell Block Tango" and the soulful cover of Florence + The Machine's "Shake It Out". Continuing the musical theatre theme of the episode, both McKinley High New Directions Cheerios (Santana and Brittany), plus Mercedes (Amber Riley), Tina and Sugar (Vanessa Lengies) banded together for a Rob Marshall-drenched film homage onstage recreation of "The Cell Block Tango" from CHICAGO much to the understandable dismay of the instructors, while the boys used a musical theatre song to a much more educational end by rocking out to a heavy metal adaptation of Lerner & Loewe's MY FAIR LADY standard "The Rain In Spain" as a history lesson in song sung to and then by a suddenly education-seeking Puck (Mark Salling), who, unfortunately, still earned an F. What does that mean for his future at McKinley and on GLEE?
Speaking of Puck, "Choke" was his central episode of the season since his Shelby (Idina Menzel) dalliance in the first few episodes of the year and he got a chance to ape Alice Cooper atop a field full of gyrating cheerleaders with a raucous "School's Out For The Summer", in addition to the MY FAIR LADY and well-played estranged father/son scene. On the exact the opposite side of the musical coin, of course, were the NYADA auditions of Kurt and Rachel, though Rachel's show-closing cover of Kelly Clarkson's "Cry" was a moving and emotionAl Capper to the satisfying and especially effective episode. Also, NeNe Leakes as Roz Washington ex-Olympian faculty nemesis made an enjoyable reappearance, always making her "black Sue Sylvester" character count for more than she could otherwise. Indeed, GLEE has shined most of all in the small character moments this season, whereas Season Two was at its best in the big production numbers on a theme and One was where we all fell hook, line and sinker under the spell - re-watching the first seven episodes now (as I just did) is like seeing a different show altogether; try it and see for yourself. S3 proves GLEE has matured by leaps and bounds and jetees since S1, and, while some students may be ready to move on, this show has a lot of love left to give us gleeks out there in the audience - and a lot more.
All in all, one line sums up what makes GLEE must-see-TV for all Broadway babies, now and forever, with "Choke" being a particularly repeat-worthy entry for theatre enthusiasts out of them all - "'Music Of The Night' is your 'Don't Rain On My Parade'!" A perfectly-pitched line which was shortly followed by Rachel exclaiming to Kurt, "I will be your Christine!" So, then - sing for us, GLEE!