SOUND OFF: GLEE Sings Sondheim
What, dare say, is "the ultimate musical theatre challenge"? Well, Sondheim, that is! Otherwise known as the greatest living musical theatre dramatist and the subject of this week's Glee - FOLLIES to SWEENEY TODD and INTO THE WOODS. And, touching, timely and terrific tribute it was.
No One Is Alone
"We are not in Glee club, OK? This is the real WORLD - this is all that we have - and the real WORLD has rules," Mercedes (Amber Riley) informed newly reprised love interest Sam (Chord Overstreet) In an episode written by co-creator Ian Brennan and directed by Bradley Buecker, Glee showcased the reinvigorated and revitalized storyline amply evident to see on the new and improved Glee 5.0 as it exists - that is, the entirely NYC-focused new iteration of the hit musical dramedy series. Dramatically exploring many sides of showbiz and the even more cutthroat ways of the heart, the uniformly strong episode was rife was heart-racing drama and the finest musical theatre material imaginable, as well. While last week's "New New York" depicted much of the new core crew, this week's ep allowed for a more pronounced focus on individual storylines and characters - with well-chosen Sondheim songs to match; plus a new tune and a classic soul song, as well. After all, what a colorful collection of characters it undoubtedly is - with the rainbow of musical material to match. Case in point: the stunning opening musical sequence set to "No One Is Alone" from INTO THE WOODS.
Newly christened Broadway star Rachel (Lea Michele) is poised to wow the crowds of the Great White Way as Fanny Brice in the new Broadway revival of iconic Jule Styne/Bob Merrill musical FUNNY GIRL, while the rest of the former McKinley High New Directions members transplanted to the big city try their best to make a mark on Manhattan in a vast array of unique ways as seen on the show. For instance, Blaine (Darren Criss) now studies at theatrical institution NYADA alongside Kurt (Chris Colfer), and, believe it or not, Broadway star-to-be Rachel. Well, until last night, that is! Although the mere suggestion that a headliner of a major Broadway revival would still pursue a full load at a dramatic institute such as the (made-up) NYADA, the exploration of the lofty conceit yielded one of the finest and most poignant moments on the series this season so far, and a surefire standout moment of the show to date. Indeed, Whoopi Goldberg is a continually enjoyable repeat visitor to the wacky and wonderful WORLD of Glee and her smart, starchy and refined characterization of NYADA instructor extraordinaire Carmen Tibideaux is particularly inspired - as was wildly evident to witness. After last night's exchange with Rachel, perhaps the EGOT recipient will be adding yet another well-earned accolade to her astounding resume thus far. Inspirational and unforgettable acting. Wow.
As for the show itself, Mercedes and Sam were afforded a rare spotlight with a somewhat unexpected romance rekindling - lest we forget their brief courtship a few seasons ago, climaxing in a gigantic and indelible rendition of Whitney Houston's iconic "I Will Always Love You". While the music industry Rising Star and would-be model is an odd fit, Riley and Overstreet made for appreciable entertainment in their cute and quirky scenes together. On that note, Riley continued her uninterrupted streak of pristine vocal performances with a lovely and full-bodied cover of Carole King's classic as realized by soul queen Aretha Franklin, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman". Incidentally, Riley appeared onstage herself somewhat recently in New York byway of hit revue COTTON CLUB PARADE, while Jessie Mueller belts out the pop standard eight times a week in the hit jukebox musical BEAUTIFUL. Plus, new tune "Colour Blind" was a welcome addition to the original Glee catalog of tunes.
On the Broadway-centric portion of the quickly paced program, Blaine and Rachel lit the overall quite excellent series entry alight with a spectacular take on an iconic Stephen Sondheim song that the master himself would surely even enjoy with this effervescent "Broadway Baby" given a plucky and sparkling duet arrangement. Besides that Sondheim staple, SWEENEY TODD's enduring "Not While I'm Around" was shown a sensitive singing by Criss and company in the hospital - in a heretofore unheard a capella iteration, adding even more to its palapable effect. So, too was "I'm Still Here" given a FOLLIES-worthy take in an unquestionably Jarvis Cocker-inspired twist on the classic showstopper, as seen most exceptionally late last year in the exemplary Six by Sondheim on HBO. "Sung the blues," for sure, especially with the gruesome gay bashing shown in full effect on the show - NYC is not all apple pie. Seeds and stems are always just a bite away - bruises, too. Biting and unflinching was the portrayal, without any question. Hurt, but also salvation.
An exuberant homage to one of the finest musical dramatists the form has ever known, GLEE's paean to Stephen Sondheim was a sturdy second show on the rocky fifth season of the series - overflowing with memorable musical moments. Undoubtedly, the new New York focus is intriguing in and of itself, while the performances of the new core cast makes it a worthwhile enterprise with promise aplenty.
Next week? "Tested" takes on STDS. Stay tuned!