The Glee live experience is almost impossible to critique. If you’re a Gleek, (as fans of the astonishingly successful US show proclaim themselves), then you’re probably already sold on the idea of seeing the cast recreate their characters in a live setting. But for any non-fans who may have been dragged along to the O2, either through parental duty or spousal pressure, to see what amounts to a covers band consisting of a group of twenty-somethings with varying degrees of skill pretending to be teenagers, it must have seemed like a particularly cruel and previously undocumented circle of hell – one where you are screamed at by excited children until your ears bleed.
There was little attempt to convert non-believers, but for the Gleeks in attendance (presumably the majority of the audience) this was a slick, professional show that understood what the fans wanted. The support act was clearly skewed to younger members of the audience: an undeniably skilled dance act that felt, to this jaded eye, like an over-long audition for Britain’s Got Talent but which was lapped up by the squealing tweens around me. But it was when the giant video screens flickered to life with an introduction by the show’s absent cast members – Matthew Morrison, who plays the teacher Mr Schue, and Jane Lynch, who plays acerbic cheerleader coach Sue Sylvester – that the stadium went mad. Wisely getting the crowd on side from the off, the cast opened with a rousing rendition of the show’s unofficial theme song, the Journey number ‘Don’t Stop Believing’, followed by a trio of crowd pleasing foot stompers.
It can’t be an easy task translating a TV show into a live stadium performance, but Glee Live comes pretty close to nailing it. With nine bestselling albums of material to choose from, the organisers smartly chose a set list that managed to showcase the talents of each of the cast members, while sticking closely to the TV show’s mix of show tunes, anthemic pop, ballads and reinterpretations of modern classics, with plenty of flashy effects thrown in for good measure. There was, perhaps inevitably, some miming, and any heavy dancing was done by professionals drafted in for the occasion: in the group numbers featuring all the cast, the choreography tended towards the energetic but slightly shambolic, though one could argue that this accurately reflects the TV series.
In a tightly packed 90 minutes, with performances split between the main stage and a smaller more central platform, there were numerous stand-out moments; Lea Michele, Amber Riley and Chris Colfer all nailed their solo numbers (though there was some debate in my camp as to whether Riley was miming – I thought she wasn’t, but wouldn’t stake my life on it). Heather Morris proved she really is an exceptional dancer with a just-about-suitable-for-schoolkids take on the Britney Spears steamfest ‘Slave 4 U’ , although her spoken segments came across as slightly stilted.
The decision to include ‘rival glee club’ the Warblers was inspired, and their short set was a real highlight. The Warblers were led by gay teen Kurt’s on-screen love interest Blaine, played by the ridiculously charismatic Darren Criss. Criss is a performer whose career looks set to go stratospheric on the back of his Glee appearances and, on this evidence, deservedly so: he worked the stage like he owned it, to the considerable delight of the audience. His spoken interlude with Colfer was a tad awkward and clearly inserted to give the crowd a chance to see this most beloved of couples together on stage, while avoiding the inconvenient truth that the two men’s voices aren’t particularly well suited and that their duets have been some of this season’s lowest points. Luckily, the combination of Criss’ charm and Colfer’s obviously unfeigned and infectious enthusiasm, bolstered by the roared goodwill of thousands of fans, managed to carry the moment.
In general, the scripted fillers were brief and rare, which was merciful – while the crowd was happy to hear the occasional snarky comment from Naya Rivera’s Santana, they weren’t here for the dialogue. The videotaped sections of Lynch and Morrison were convenient fillers between scene changes but made largely redundant by the fact the crowd screamed over them. There were, however, some humorous moments with the cast keeping in character even when the spotlight was elsewhere: witness Brittany trying to teach the hapless Finn (Cory Montieth, here as amiable as he is in the show) to dance in the background of one of the duets.
There were some technical flaws that even an admitted fangirl couldn’t ignore. The screens broke down several times, although they were repaired very quickly, and the camerawork was at times shockingly bad: unforgiveable in a venue where a significant chunk of the audience is relying on the video feed to stand any chance of following what is happening on the stage. There were several numbers where the performers clearly thought they were singing to camera, but the audience was blessed only with a big screen shot of the back of someone’s head: perhaps mistakes of this kind would be understandable during full cast numbers, but they’re far less forgiveable when all you have to capture is a simple duet. Putting aside these niggles, the Glee live experience was a surprisingly satisfying one; an enjoyable and entertaining show, the perfect treat for fans, just the thing to tide them over until the new series airs in the autumn.
The cast of Glee will be performing live at the O2 arena until 30th June 2011. For tickets and further information, visit the O2 website.
Read Tracey Sinclair on why Glee is good for theatre.