During its brief tenure in the sweet spot of Fox’s programming schedule, “Glee” has served as a remarkably successful music delivery device, topping the charts with soundtracks and inspiring teens to scour the internet for Bonnie Tyler torrents. Yet while its distinctive blend of high camp and recognizable tunes may click on the small screen, when translated to stage the conceit becomes little more than a frantic, under-imagined jukeboxer, and only occasionally a well-performed one. Four-city tour will likely rake in the cash and merit a reprise, but whether it deserves it is a different matter.
For Thursday’s 70-minute show at the Gibson Amphitheater, stage director and series creator Ryan Murphy required the show’s young stars to perform in character (as cheerleaders, jocks or wheelchair-bound nerds, as the case may be) though he gave them surprisingly little extra-musical material to perform; only Jane Lynch and Matthew Morrison’s interstitial video footage even attempted to channel the show’s biting wit. Otherwise, the assembled cast simply charged through truncated versions of the season’s highlights, all competently executed, but most notably missing the studio sweetening that the series’ engineers slather on with broad strokes.
Of course, it’s unfair to ask a dozen young performers of wildly varying experience to command a 6,000-capacity arena fresh out of the gate, but the wide gulf in talent between the veterans and the newcomers was could not be ignored. Broadway-tested Lea Michele revealed herself as the most obvious pro, performing snippets of Streisand with power and presence, while Amber Riley put in very solid readings of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” and Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy is Mine,” seeming less certain of her star status but no less worthy of it. Wisely, the producers never left either woman offstage for long.
To the disappointment of the predominantly young female crowd, series heartthrobs Mark Salling and Cory Monteith served as only minor players in the proceedings, though the latter took a turn on the drums during “Sweet Caroline.” Group numbers hewed closely to the arrangements on the show and allowed for some elaborate staging, including a mist-shrouded Ford Escalade and a jungle gym of mattresses. Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” received the best reception of the night, though likely more for its contemporaneity than its anemic arrangement, which made the original seem almost punk by comparison.
Indeed, given “Glee’s” influence on young record buyers, its myopic range of song choices was perhaps the most disappointing element of last night’s show. When even “American Idol” has managed to smuggle songs from Lykke Li and Iggy Pop onto its broadcast in the past year, it’s hard to defend “Glee’s” refusal to venture beyond overexposed pop hits and Reagan-era AOR. (Surely one of the three Journey numbers performed last night could have been dropped in favor of a smaller artist whose career could use the show’s spotlight.)
“Glee” Live! In Concert! remains at the Gibson for three more performances (including a Saturday matinee), then hits New York’s Radio City Music Hall on May 28.