Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Webber Action on "Idol"

As an unabashed Broadway fan who's slightly more abashed at her soft spot for Andrew Lloyd Webber, I have to admit I was looking forward to this week ever since I heard Sir Andrew – or is it Lord Andrew – was going to be an "AI" mentor. I dare say I'm one of the few, as I suspect most "Idol" watchers have little use for musicals, while most musical theater lovers seem to despise ALW – for bombast, triteness, treacliness, you name it. (Aside: Why must Webber always be a guilty pleasure for a musical lover? It's roughly the equivalent of a classical music buff secretly loving Tchaikovsky. Also, are there any Sondheim lovers who love ALW, too? I’m convinced there aren't. I myself am not sufficiently acquainted with Sondheim's work to be one.) I can’t say I’m exactly a Webberhead, though like many girls, I went through a Phantom of the Opera phase in junior high, from which I never completely recovered. In fact, Phantom is the only musical of his that I know really well. However, I have liked quite a few, though by no means all, of the bits of his other musicals I've heard or seen.

While opinions may vary on his music, there's little doubt that ALW proved an intelligent and effective mentor to most of the top six, if the clips they showed were any indicator. I liked how he kept bringing each contestant back to the meaning of the song, placing it in the context of the overall musical, and I thought most of his suggestions were spot-on. I also enjoyed his dry British wit and turn of phrase. (Come on, how often do you hear the word "glamourpuss" these days?) But at the end of the day, even his coaching couldn't make certain square pegs (cough)Jason(cough)Brooke fit into the round holes of his repertoire, though there were others who benefited greatly from his advice.

THE RUNDOWN (in performance order):

SYESHA MERCADO led off with the only song on the list I didn't recognize, "One Rock and Roll Too Many" from Starlight Express, and absolutely nailed it. Go Syesha! And go me! Earlier in the day, as I was thinking about how the contestants would fare with Sir Andrew, I predicted that Syesha and David C would shine the brightest and surprise the most people. And look how right I was. In Syesha's case, I remember reading somewhere that the judges had said of her that she was more like an actress who happened to sing very well than a true singer, and remember thinking I agreed. It followed logically that she would be more at home with a Broadway theme, which would compel her to act and project a persona other than herself. And boy, was I right. Clad in a sleek red dress that accented her, uh, personal assets, she slinked and shimmied and sang the hell out of her jazzy number, wresting praise from even the Broadway-allergic Simon. What was best about her performance was that, for once, she really seemed to be enjoying herself, an element that always seemed missing before.

JASON CASTRO had a tough act to follow, and alas, wasn't helped by choosing "Memory" (from Cats), a belters' favorite and one of the most worn chestnuts in the ALW collection. I couldn't help but chortle at Sir Andrew's reaction to Jason, whom he clearly could make nothing of; I'm sure he's never seen the like of that kid before, as dreadheaded Jack Johnson-y guitar-strummers don't in the normal course of affairs cross paths with Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. Alas, the disjunct showed in Jason's performance. I didn't think it was quite the "train wreck" that Randy proclaimed it to be (btw, Randy really seems to have his claws out for Jason), but it was hard to watch him struggle so hard in such futility. While his vocals weren't notably worse than in past weeks - though he seemed to be having particular difficulties controlling his breathing - the difference lay in the fact that he couldn't make the song his own. He tried - oh how earnestly he tried - and failed. It was like watching a beached fish flap desperately on the shore.

BROOKE WHITE was another one I had to give an "A" for effort but, at best, a C+ for execution. It's too bad, because I think she had the potential to do much better. She was wise enough to pick a song that wouldn't strain her range ("You Must Love Me" from the movie version of Evita, written specifically for Madonna's equally limited range), though I applauded ALW for pointing out that Brooke clearly had no idea what the song really meant and for helping her understand something of the intense pain that it was meant to convey. You could practically see the light bulb go off in her head. And she really did try to translate that into her performance; tonight was the first night in a while I could sense real emotion working through. The false start, however, did her no favors (not the first time she's done that, and not very professional, as Paula pointed out with uncharacteristic curtness). And, as with Jason, the whole thing came across as at once painfully labored and wildly ill-suited to her vocal style, despite her best efforts. At least this time she kept her mouth shut during the judges' comments, though she still looked a bit pouty.

DAVID ARCHULETA pulled a bit of a "Big David" in rearranging the old-fashioned lyric "Think of Me" (from Phantom) into a slightly uptempo, boy band-ish pop song. Have to say he didn't do a half-bad job with the transformation, though I couldn't help feeling like it had a, well, trivializing effect on the song. (Cue legions of ALW haters proclaiming "Song was already trivial!") His vocals, as always, were smooth and lovely. But I swear the kids looks younger, not older, every week. Oh, and more kudos to ALW for calling him on keeping his eyes shut through 80% of his songs! You could see him fighting the impulse tonight, which was pretty funny.

CARLY SMITHSON rocked out with "Superstar" from Jesus Christ Superstar, a song I secretly hoped David C would do though I knew he wouldn't. I think ALW's instincts, in persuading her to take that song rather than the uberromantic "All I Ask of You," were correct, even if they seemed as influenced by her tattoos as the quality of her voice. (But he's right on the latter; her voice is hard rather than tender; bronze rather than silver.) She brought a lot of energy and verve to it, and, like Syesha, seemed to be genuinely enjoying herself on stage. However, I don't think her vocals were quite as good as Syesha's, especially in her upper range: as Simon said, it got a bit "shouty." I'm actually less concerned by that than I am about how certain segments of the "AI" voting population not familiar with JCS might react to lyrics like "Jesus Christ, / Superstar, / Do you think you're what they say you are?"

DAVID COOK's secret weapon, which only Cookheads like myself were probably aware of, was the fact that he has serious roots in musical theater: he was a theater geek in high school, and even went to college on a musical theater scholarship, though he didn't stick with it. So I was unusually confident going into this week that he would, contrary to common expectation, be all over the material and would shatter the stereotype of him as a wannabe rocker. Score two for me! IMO, only someone with his experience could successfully take on the one ALW song that's been sung more ad nauseum than "Memory" - i.e., "The Music of the Night." First off, let me say that a long time ago, I liked that song. Then after hearing it performed more times than I can count - I even had to accompany someone singing it on the piano - I renounced it forever; I now call it "the endless song" and actually skip over the track whenever I listen to Phantom. So when I heard that David C was singing the Endless Song, I wasn't best pleased, and was a little nervous about some of the high notes. I needn't have worried. It wasn't the most virtuosic performance of "MoN" I've ever heard, but he avoided the trap of being compared to previous Phantoms, especially Michael Crawford, by infusing the song with a husky tenderness that's entirely absent in the original version. He sang it straight (except for the signature rocker note at the very end), yet still made it quintessentially DC, complete with soulful DC glances and gestures. And he hit the high notes! In Randy's words, molten hot, baby.

How funny was it that this week David A should be the one to "tweak" his song, while DC played it straight with his? But that's what I Iove so much about this season. Just when you think you've pegged any of the contestants, they can turn around and surprise you. Still waiting for Brooke to do that, though her time to do so may have just run out.

BEST OF THE NIGHT: Syesha edges out David C, but both were definitely a cut above the rest

WORST: Erhem, it's a toss-up between Jason and Brooke

BOTTOM 3: Brooke, Jason, and Carly

GOING HOME: I'm going to go out on a limb and say Carly. She and Syesha seem to be the contestants who are most dependent on voters of no allegiance rather than established fan bases, and I think Syesha did better than her tonight. Plus, there's the Christian contingent to consider (see above), though I really hope Sir Andrew's advice on song choice doesn't unwittingly become the reason she goes home.


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