Greetings from Atlanta! Or, as it's known in the "please visit us" travel industry, Hotlanta. I don't quite get that first syllable switcheroo. Where's the rhyme scheme? Actually, if they wanted a pure rhyme, they should call it Hatlanta and claim that Atlanta is the hat capital of the U.S. They could use Elaine Stritch on the TV commercial. White shirt, black tights, glaring straight at the camera, taking the full 60 seconds to say, "Does anyone….still wear…a hat……….(close up) -lanta." Atlanta Bureau of Tourism? Any takers?
Anyway, I'm here because I just played piano for Jennifer Hudson at a fundraiser to keep music in schools. Not only did she sound great, but the best news is she didn't go on until 9:45 PM, so I got to watch "You're the One that I Want" in my hotel room from 8-9 and then hightail it to the venue. Okay, this week's episode opened with the song "Grease (Is the Word)" as a group number. The two things of note were that the girls were in shiny spandex reminiscent of my jazzercise outfit from the mid-eighties, and the ending button of the number was Billy Bush opening up a locker that had Denise Van Outen crammed inside. And, I mean literally crammed inside à la "Boxing Helena" The locker only had enough room for a 20-pound lighter Dakota Fanning, not a fully grown woman. I hope NBC is paying for the acupuncture she'll need from the crazy Pilobolus Dance Company contortion she had to be in just to get a smattering of applause.
The show began with the reveal that Austin and Chad were in the bottom two and the introduction of the special guest judge: Rob Marshall. I was thinking what a great opportunity it was for the contestants to get to perform in front of him. Hopefully, he'll be making another movie musical soon. A Chorus Line, hopefully — the way it actually should have been done, not . . . "Movie Production Meeting 1984": "Let's take 'What I Did For Love' and instead of having the song be about the beauty of art and how that alone is worth it, let's limit its scope as much as possible and make it about Zach and Cassie's love affair. That should ruin it for everyone." It was nice to see Rob and Kathleen Marshall together. But why do they ignore their big sister Penny? Just because her spin-off, "Laverne and…" bombed? Not cool.
All right, back to the show. This week the girls had to show Sandy's "emotional side," and the boys had to sing Elvis songs. Connection? Relevance? None. Allie sang "Natural Woman," and while I'm constantly lamenting that the keys are too low for everybody, I thought that this key was a little too high for her. Also, for weeks everyone has been forced to use the Sunset Boulevard stairs and finally, this week, Allie tripped, but she continued without missing a beat. Maybe next week they could add an actual obstacle course. Isn't the set from Cats available? I want to see a Sandy-hopeful trip on a tire.
Derek sang "Devil in Disguise" and sounded fine, but I felt he didn't give enough levels. That song is about contrast ("You walk like an angel" vs. "You're the devil in disguise"), and I wanted him to rock out, physically and vocally, on the funky parts and he didn't. Rob Marshall suggested that they sing the songs in character rather than perform it like a club act, and I agreed. Thinking back, I have often felt like paying for a two-drink minimum after many performances. By the by, I hope the producers of "Passions" or "All My Children" are watching because I'm obsessed with Derek's visage. No matter how close the camera gets, he looks stunning and pore-less. Then came Laura who sang "Don't Leave Me This Way," sporting Madonna's "Confessions on a Dance Floor" hairdo. I was very impressed with the fact that she sang "Me-e-e-e-e" as a high note and didn't modify the e vowel . . . and was able to vibrato! I've heard many a Norma Desmond wannabe sing "With one look, I'll be ma-a-a-a-a-a-a-ay!" You'll be what? The month of May?
Max sang "Suspicious Minds" and, to me, gave the best performance of the evening. His voice always sounds super, and his acting is excellent. He's so great at "acting in the air" as we say in the beeswax (acting during the spaces between lyrics). They showed clips of his fans who are known as "Slacker Backers." Dangerously coming close to copyright infringement with the 1970's "Killing Me Softly With His Song" fan group, "Roberta Flacker Backers" Max and Laura both got praised, and Jim Jacobs said that they started out as the most unconventional Danny and Sandys, noting that people think Sandy always has to be a blonde. Does nobody remember the original Sandy, Carole Demas, who was a brunette? Why is everyone's opinion based on the movie? (Check out youtube to see the originals, Carole and Barry Bostwick, do "Summer Nights" on a PBS special. Listen to Carole's amazing scooping on "met a bo-oy" and Barry's crazy high notes on "She got friendly, down in the sa-a-a-and"!)
Then there was a salute to Rob Marshall where everybody sang and danced "All That Jazz." The song naturally sits very low in a woman's voice, and they blatantly kept it in the same key when the men soloed down the octave. I haven't heard anything that low since "Hurry Back" in Applause (Lauren Bacall "belts" an A below low C). At least the choreography was really fun and, tip of the hat to Susan in [title of show], very broken doll.
|photo by NBC|
Finally, the two men in the bottom had to have their sing-off. Billy Bush revealed that Austin had the lowest votes. That's always fun to hear at the downbeat when you're about to sing for your survival. After they sang, Kathleen Marshall said that Danny has to be a triple threat, and they've decided to keep Austin because he is the better overall singer, dancer, actor. Next up was Ashley who sang "Set Me Free," and, yet again, she's my favorite. I love her tone and fast vibrato. Austin sang "I Can't Help Falling in Love" and sounded good but did that annoying "American Idol"-style acting where you look into whatever camera is closest to you instead of playing it straight out. I know the contestants aren't supposed to be doing actual theatre performing, but I hate that camera staring because instead of me watching their performance, I'm super aware of them looking in the camera lens, and it takes me totally out of the moment. I haven't seen that much playing to the camera since "Three's Company"'s Norman Fell got in one of his signature zingers about Mrs. Roper.
At the end, the judges were split about the best Danny, but the unanimous choice for Best Sandy was Laura. Rob got himself off the hook by saying that any of them could play the role. Chad sang his goodbye song ("Sandy"), and that was the end of the final show where the judges have power.
From now on, "America decides." I love when they say "America," as if the whole country is watching and voting. They should at least be honest and say, "From now on, most of America ignores, while relatives of the contestants, teenage girls and gay men decide." Uh-oh! Only two more weeks 'til the finale . . . then what am I going to have to live for? Oh, "Project Runway" is coming back . . . ahhhhhh.
[Seth Rudetsky is the host of "Seth's Big Fat Broadway" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and the author of "The Q Guide to Broadway." For two years Rudetsky was the pianist/assistant conductor for the 1994 revival of Grease!. He can be contacted by visiting www.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com.]