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You may have noticed that those lovable Glee kids are getting a little old. With senior year at McKinley right around the corner, the show’s producers faced an unenviable decision: cast a new crop of song birds to replace Rachel and company, or figure out a plot line that flunks the current cast so as to make them repeat the 12th grade.
Picking the former option, the show’s creator, Ryan Murphy — along with fellow executive producers Dante Di Lorento, Michael Davies (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire) and Shauna Minoprio (Top Chef) — has seized an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, fashioning a reality show about the hunt for new talent. Oxygen’s entertaining new spinoff reflects well on the blockbuster franchise and illuminates the pressures faced by talented kids on the brink of showbiz success.
The show’s weekly elimination format is not unfamiliar. Whittled down from 40,000 applicants, 12 aspiring stars sing, dance and emote in order to earn the right to be written into the script of Glee for no fewer than seven episodes. What makes The Glee Project feel organic, however, is that the people making the decision about who goes on to Glee are the ones most qualified to do so. Glee’s casting director Robert Ulrich, choreographer Zach Woodlee and vocal coach, arranger and songwriter Nikki Anders serve as mentors and bring a heft to each critique that goes beyond that found in such casting-call shows like American Idol.
The first hoop the contestants must jump through is a group performance of Stevie Wonder’s “Sign, Sealed, Delivered.” Given just one line to deliver solo, each castmember strives to sell his or her individuality to Ulrich and (OMG!) guest judge Darren Criss (Glee’s Blaine Anderson).
At first glance, Samuel, a hip 19-year-old with dreadlocks and nose piercings; Ellis, a spunky tomboy who looks 12 more than 18; and Matheus, an unusually short brace-faced 20-year-old all seem tailor made to play below age and become the next Glee oddballs. As the group begins its performance of the song, however, you wonder whether this show is going to be exactly as realistic as its musical forefather. The solo portions have been overdubbed with studio-quality vocal takes, and subtle choreography has been slipped into what is supposed to seem like a live, on-the-spot rendition.
That bit of transparent staging aside, a winner is selected who will be featured in the show’s second hoop — the making of a video of Katy Perry’s pop anthem “Firework” — and who will receive (OMG!) a one-on-one acting session with Criss.
In preparation for the video shoot, Woodlee and Anders show themselves to be less cuddly than Ulrich, often not hiding their disappointment with the contestants as they guide them through rapid-fire dance moves and a pressure-filled recording session.
“Look, I can’t treat you like 3-year-olds,” Woodlee tells Bryce, a handsome 22-year-old with a chiseled chin and two left feet.
With the video in the can, the judges rate the performances. “Ultimately, it’s about who popped in the music video,” Ulrich tells the camera.
Once the bottom three performers are picked, each must perform a do-or-die number for the big man on Glee’s campus, Ryan Murphy, and the pressure of the audition brings two of the three contestants to tears.
Without a doubt, Glee Project’s target audience is that of Glee. Packed with visual and sonic references to the original show as well as cast member cameos, it does help to have watched Glee at least once. That said, there’s suspense in seeing who stays and who goes home throughout this extended audition process. You also end up learning a lot about the people behind Glee as well as the work that goes into developing the chemistry of its cast.
The brutal and seemingly arbitrary truth about show business is that, in the eyes of casting directors, you either have it or you don’t. While that realization doesn’t quite jibe with Glee’s thematic message of inclusion, it does turn out to make for rather compelling reality TV.
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