LOU'S VIEWS: Of 'Glee' they sing

October 3, 2009

This week, thoughts on Fox’s “Glee” and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s opening night.

It may not be the hottest show on TV (for non-sports programming, that’s still “House,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Office”), but Fox’s “Glee,” co-created by Indiana native Ryan Murphy, is surely the one generating the most buzz in the A&E world.

Focused on the members of a high school glee club, its teacher leader, and those in their orbit, “Glee” is an odd but often endearing and surprising mix. After four episodes, it still seems to be wobbling toward what will ultimately be its tone. But that’s to be expected with a show trying to create its own way.

Terrific performances are certainly a plus. Having seen Lea Michele (“Glee’s” Rachel) on Broadway in both “Ragtime” and “Spring Awakening,” I can attest that this isn’t just a case of a young actress playing close to home. The woman has range (and can sing). And likely to be the show’s first Emmy winner is Jane Lynch in a tightly controlled yet over-the-top performance as cheer coach Sue Sylvester. An award should be given to anyone who can keep a straight face while starting a televised editorial with, “You know, caning has fallen out of fashion in the United States …” and later state, “Not everyone is going to have the walnuts to take a pro-littering stance.”

Broadway vet Lea Michele, center, leads the junior side of the cast of TV’s “Glee.” (Photo courtesy Fox)

Audiences—and execs at Fox—seem willing to stick with the show. It recently overcame a major new-show hurdle—an entire season of episodes has been ordered. Even if it’s quickly canceled, it will at least produce a full-season DVD set.

At best, though, the show could have staying power, allowing for its characters to graduate as newcomers flow into the student body (although, come to think of it, television shows set in high school rarely make such evolutionary steps, instead forcing their teens to age awkwardly a la the “Welcome Back, Kotter” sweathogs).

After four episodes of viewing, I’ve enjoyed it but still can’t say I love the show—or that I’m willing to make it appointment TV (Hulu.com, where you can see past episodes on demand, solves that problem). Its ambiguity about its own reality has kept me at some distance. I’m not referring to the high-quality musical numbers coming from the alleged misfits. That’s to be expected. What’s hard to settle into are characters who are sometimes cartoons, sometimes soap opera serious, and sometimes heartfelt realistic, often all in the same scene.

Example: In episode 4, suspension of belief is required to buy that, after being caught dancing to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” by his macho father, gay teen Kurt (Chris Colfer) would lie about being on the football team, actually land a spot, then convince the squad to learn a dance number to distract the opposition and win the big game.

“Glee” has a lot of that sort of thing. If you’re a realist, you’ll be spending a lot of time saying, “Oh, come on.”

But if you accept “Glee” as an anything-can-happen high school fantasy, it’s hard to care about characters and their problems. And these are pretty big problems. Which brings up another issue: The show (and by “the show,” I include its network’s marketing folks) tries to have things both ways when it comes to audience appeal.

Using “American Idol” as a lead-in to the high-profile premiere of the pilot episode back in May sent the message that “Glee” is appropriate for the “High School Musical” crowd. But newcomers should know that “Glee” is decidedly not “HSM.” It deals steadily—sometimes seriously, sometimes glibly—with teen sex.

“You got me drunk on wine coolers,” explains a teen mama-to-be, “and I felt fat that day.” On the football team, a player reacts to some standard “Yo mama” trash talking by stating, factually, that he slept with the other player’s mother … on the other player’s bed.

“Glee” isn’t as raunchy as the movie “American Pie.” Its adult sensibility is more akin to “Election,” the satiric high school film. The difference here, beyond “Election’s” being an R-rated film as opposed to an ongoing TV show, is that “Glee’s” flawed main characters aren’t too flawed. As desperate and attention-seeking as she may be, Rachel remains interesting and likable. She’d be no match for Reese Witherspoon’s scary, ultra-focused Tracy Flick in “Election.” And teacher Will (Matthew Morrison) might make mistakes, but he remains likable throughout, unlike Matthew Broderick’s movie equivalent. Even if he eventually succumbs to his attraction for germophobe guidance counselor Emma (Jayma Mays), no doubt the audience will be on Will’s side. I’m still undecided.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra offered a wandering, overstuffed opening night concert Sept. 26 that eventually arrived at a magical place courtesy of pianist Gabriela Montero.

To be sure, there were memorable moments and strong playing elsewhere in the evening. The “March” section of Leonard Bernstein’s “Divertimento for Orchestra” allowed the entire company to go into full-bore calliope mode and guest narrator F. Murray Abraham proved either an excellent actor or was genuinely moved by the sweep of Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” as played by the ISO.

Pianist Gabriela Montero joined Raymond Leppard for the ISO’s season-opening concert. (Photo courtesy Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra)

Montero’s three works in the second act, though, proved the most riveting.

John Williams’ “Air and Simple Gifts,” written for a presidential inauguration, worked beautifully without the rest of Montero’s high-powered D.C. collaborators (Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and Anthony McGill). Here, violinist and ISO Principal Concertmaster Alexander Kerr, clarinetist David A. Bellman and cellist Perry Scott were more than up to the task.


Montero was back later in the evening for a strong “Rhapsody in Blue,” which found a thrilling balance between her singular, improvisational style and the ISO’s aggressively tight playing of the Gershwin classic, giving the piece a fresh rather than museum-quality sound.

An enthusiastic crowd led to Montero’s return for some pure improv to the audience-suggested (but not surprising) “Back Home Again in Indiana,” offering a take worthy of recording. Get this woman to the Indy 500.•


Visit ibj.com/arts for additional reviews, previews and arts discussion. Twitter: IBJarts




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