SOUND OFF: GLEE Puts The Real In Funereal
The penultimate episode of Season Two of GLEE on Fox last night was just about everything you could ask for from a funereally-themed Very Special Episode such as that on this show - and, in addition to the doom and gloom, we even got a scintillating "Back To Black" from Santana and Lea Michele miraculously making "My Man" all her own! Sure, the requisite gospel/r&b moment came courtesy of Amber Riley, as you would certainly expect it to given GLEE's lineage - particularly a GLEE with a funereal theme - yet the show managed to stay mostly out of the maudlin, morbid and mundane and remain its frothy, effervescent self - while always keeping it real and grounded in reality. Truly. Yes, indeed, GLEE's "Funeral" episode put the "real" in "funereal" much more so than the "fun" - but, there was some of that to be had, as well; for sure. Of special note, "Funeral" also featured the continued extended return of Broadway baby and GLEE fan-favorite Jonathan Groff as Jessie St. James, and although he did not grace us with a song this week he certainly left a lasting impression - particularly coming after last week‘s triumph, which was the GLEE musical pinnacle of Season Two thanks to him and Ms. Michele. Indeed, Lea Michele - by way of Barbra Streisand and Fanny Brice - took the lead last night and stole the show. The ladies ruled the night on the "Funeral" episode of GLEE - Lea Michele and Jane Lynch, first and foremost.
Lea Michele has sort of gotten short shrift in Season Two on GLEE. Sure, she has had a few truly sensational, knocked-out-of-the-park moments like her take on Katy Perry‘s "Firework" and Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" in the Valentine‘s Day and Super Bowl episodes, respectively, but she hasn't had a "Don't Rain On My Parade"-level moment of majorly memorable musical magnitude - that is, until last night. Until "My Man". Sacred ground? You bet your butt. But, Barbra? Yes, Barbra - again. And, so - what of it? Ms. Michele has every right to tackle the best songs in the canon, no matter who may have sung them before her - Barbra Streisand included. Will she be compared to them and to Barbra if she does so? Yes. Oh, yes. But, can her version handle it? Quite possibly. While no one will ever best Barbra Streisand singing "My Man" in the film version of FUNNY GIRL - except, perhaps, as she did herself in the Broadway show with the arguably superior Jule Styne/Bob Merrill eleven o'clock barn-burner "The Music That Makes Me Dance" that "My Man" replaced in the film version; check out the Original Broadway Cast Recording if you don't believe me - Lea Michele made "My Man" her own and made it quite magical in the process. It is a difficult sing and, while her phrasing may have taken one or two too many pointers from the Streisand playbook, making it work dramatically is a whole other ball of wax - and she did it. Those tears looks pretty damn real and she was in very top form. Speaking of which, when does Idina Menzel return and when can they sing a duet of "Queen Bee" from A STAR IS BORN? Or the Donna Summer duet "Enough Is Enough"? Or, anything at all? After all, Menzel's character of Shelby is raising Finn and Quinn's baby. Anyway, on "Funeral", the center ring of the three-ring-circus was undoubtedly the triumphant Ms. Michele and "My Man" - but, what of the rest of the episode?
It would be impossible to discuss "Funeral" without dissecting the delicately delivered and searing monologue delivered by Jane Lynch in the opening sequence of the episode, evocatively and emotionally recounting her relationship with her Downs Syndrome-afflicted sister - a character last seen in the memorable Carol Burnett guest-starring episode in the first half of Season Two - who had just passed away. The cold, calculating, oft-nefarious Sue Sylvester instantaneously becomes a real, live, three-dimensional human being in this moment - a rare event only sporadically occurring, and always with great import to the entire arc of the season. So, when Sue Sylvester gets serious and earnest without tongue placed in cheek, we had better sit up and pay very close attention. This Ryan Murphy-penned episode was deceptively designed to offer the laughs, leers and lovability we have come to expect from the show, but he also added a healthy, hearty (and heart-y) dose of drama and reality. The pay-off for all of the outlandish, over-the-toppery of Season Two coming from Coach Sylvester and the newly-formed and as-quickly-disbanded Legion of Doom came last night in an epic capitulation with the achingly heartfelt and realistic depiction of Sue's sister's death - how quickly it appears, how unprepared we are for it, and how we manage the loss as an individual; and, furthermore, how a community can band together to make it a little bit better and a little bit easier for everyone concerned. Community is key - especially to GLEE. Sometimes, yes, even just the tiniest bit of kindness and tenderness can melt the iciest heart in times of need, if only ephemerally - and Sue Sylvester is no exception, as was proven tenfold last night. No question, it is in these dynamic stories in the drama-heavy episodes like last night's that GLEE puts the drama where the dramatics are - and the real in "Funereal". No, not the "fun" in "funeral", as Santana so snidely noted. Well, maybe a little bit. This is a variety show, after all.
As always - and, at its best - GLEE is in a world of its own in the entertainment stratosphere (at least outside of Broadway), especially when it comes to the musical numbers. It would be impossible to beat the ingenuity, chills and surprise of last week's Rachel/Jessie acapella duet version of Adele's "Rolling In The Deep" - in my mind the finest musical moment of Season Two - but Murphy and company certainly find new ways to reinvent the way a song can tell a story each and every week, in subtle and surprising ways that often belie the more outlandish aspects of the all-over-the-place musical/comedy/drama aspects of the often scattershot show. As I always say, it is a variety show - and this week was the Very, Very Special Episode. They pulled the drama off with aplomb and with not even half of the treacle and cheese that could have been included - especially given the catalogue of songs they could have gone with given last night's morbid theme. Now, that is not to say that the macabre was not wittily referenced and examined - Naya Rivera‘s "Back To Black" being the beacon of examples of this; whether or not you caught that (it's ostensibly a song about the dark days coming in the wake of the death of a relationship). One thing is for sure: Amy Winehouse fits Santana like a glove - or, more to the point: like a tattoo. Continuing a theme begun earlier this season - that of Kurt taking on the great Broadway anthems like "Rose's Turn" from GYPSY, "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" from EVITA, "Defying Gravity" from WICKED and, now "Some People" (also from GYPSY) - Kurt lent his falsetto and tenor to a big belter best-built for a broad of Broadway, but, I suppose he brought it a certain charm. I'm generally not a gan of his gender-bending takes on Broadway standards. Whatever your feelings on the performance, Jessie seemed all-too-spot-on in his observation that the song is best left to "Merman, LuPone and Bernadette." So, too, was Amber Riley's "Try A Little Tenderness" more of the same we have come to expect from her character - which is not necessarily a bad thing. Caricature has its place. Her performance was appropriately - an all-too-expectedly - bluesy, brash and rafter-raisingly loud. It's a shame that the Mercedes storyline afforded to the talented and expressive Amber Riley this season has been so weak - the Ashley Fink compatriot scenes notwithstanding. Lastly, the WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY gem "Pure Imagination" was given a loving airing in Sue's sister's memory at her funeral service by the entire GLEE club - colorful candy props and oversized Wonka mushrooms included. It was as lovely a moment as one could have wished for - particularly the touching, honest video montage during it.
Indeed, if Sue Sylvester's eulogy for her dearly departed sister did not elicit a tear from half of the eyes glued to the screen last night, I'd be more than willing to eat my hat - tip first, to turn a phrase coined by Jessie St. James. Matthew Morrison is always asked to do the near-impossible as Will Schuster in his dramatic moments and he certainly brought a gravitas and grace to his scenes with Sue last night - especially evident in certain scenes which could have been so easily melodramatic, morose or just plain wrong (such as the ones taking place in the teacher's lounge and, later on, at the funeral service). The perfect tone was struck and maintained in "Funeral", which was no easy feat. Additionally, perhaps some of the audience was educated about Downs Syndrome, which affects more and more Americans every single year, with no foreseeable cure in sight. As far as plot points developing and/or being cleared/cleaned up: the break-up of Finn and Quinn at long last was finalized - and just in time for the long-awaited trip to New York for Nationals and the big season finale next week on Broadway. Becky was given more screen time than ever before and her scenes with Sue and Will were warm and welcome. Yet, the question on the tip of every gleek's tongue: what of the Karofsky storyline? And, what of Rachel and Finn - and Jessie? What about Kurt and Blaine? And, all things considered, perhaps most importantly of all questions posed: what havoc will Sue and the Legion of Doom wreak on the Glee club? Jessalyn Gilsig‘s return and redemption hopefully will seal the end of her character‘s arc on the show since she serves no purpose any longer (and really never did beyond the first few episodes) - sure, that lingering look during the hug with Will implied that she clearly still pines for her ex, but to what lengths will she go to get him back? We shall certainly see on Season Three, if not sooner, I guess! Also: what exactly does Quinn have up her sleeve given that foreboding curtain line? Next week: "New York, New York" all over the Big Apple, "For Good" on the stage of the Gershwin where WICKED plays eight times a week and Patti LuPone herself - just three of the joys we can look forward to on the big Season Two send-off.
In closing, "Pure Imagination" was an ideal encapsulation of everything right about last night on the "Funeral" episode of GLEE and Lea Michele made "My Man" a GLEE classic moment. The stars all shined - and heartstrings were almost all plucked - but Lea and Jane owned the night. The episode was subdued, but still effective. A little bit of fun, but also just real enough to have an impact. As good a GLEE as any.
Stay tuned for the big wrap-up as only BroadwayWorld can do next week, right here! Same GLEE website, same GLEE column.
More On: Lea Michele, Amber Riley, Jonathan Groff, Barbra Streisand, Fanny Brice, Jane Lynch, Katy Perry.