Rachel plays the lead in tonight's Broadway-centric Funny Girl episode, sharing the spotlight only slightly with a confusing return to Lima

By Jodi Walker
April 23, 2014 at 08:35 AM EDT
Tyler Golden/Fox
S5 E17
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  • TV Show
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I would like to state for the Official Recapping Record: I really enjoyed this episode of Glee. I laughed; I cried; I shrugged my shoulders along to that song from the Samsung Galaxy commercial. I know I tend not to shy away from pointing out a show’s inadequacies — unless it’s, for example, a limited holiday run of The Sing-Off, hosted by Nick Lachey, the only flawless program on television — and this episode still had a few missteps. They will be mentioned; rest assured, they mostly have to do with that shoehorned B-plot. But damn if that wasn’t a more out-of-the-box, enjoyable hour than I was expecting.

Maybe it’s because I was sort of expecting a non-live version of The Sound of Music Live!, subbing out Austria sets for New York and Carrie for Rachel. This was the Funny Girl episode, after all. But instead of performing every number from the show or having Lea Michele roll out another rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” — one that can never quite match the thrill of the first time — the show actually earned its ending. The episode wasn’t just a depiction of the opening night of Funny Girl on Broadway. It was also Rachel’s story of making it to the opening night of Funny Girl on Broadway. Is it ridiculous that Rachel has been in New York for only two years and, while going to school full-time, has managed to get the lead in a huge Broadway musical? Sure. Was that New York Times review maybe a touch too glowing and a little too focused on Rachel? Perhaps. But this is where we’ve landed with New York Glee, and while the show got pretty creative with its depiction of Funny Girl last night, the payoff seemed to be a particularly focused episode.

Tonight was all about Rachel, and I mean ALL about Rachel. The show has secretly been softening me up to the Gold Star Girl, allowing me to root for her this episode in a way I haven’t since her first underdog season. Her limited storyline last week, and Lea Michele’s emotionally raw but understated performance, thawed my heart, cleared a little room for a full-Rachel plot this week, and prepared me to actually want her to succeed. I didn’t even know it was coming! Yes, I think it must have been the thrill of the unexpected that got me so on board with this episode; that combination of 40% confusion, 30% excitement, 15% fear things are about to go off the deep end and, of course, 15% concentrated power of will. And it started in immediately, the episode’s opening scene finding Rachel in the middle of the most confusing three minutes of television since Jeff Probst coaxed Brandon Hantz out of a mental breakdown with the sheer power of his massaging hands.

Rachel is having a common nightmare: She’s being called to stage for the first scene of Funny Girl and she didn’t even know there was a performance. Perhaps slightly less standard, Rachel’s nightmare features cameos from former favorite recurring characters, Karofsky and Jacob Ben Israel, berating her as her teeth fall out. She’s also naked. Then she’s in a bunch of heart balloons. Then Blaine is Warbler’s garb and Santana is in a Cheerios uniform. And suddenly, Rachel has gone Full Sophomore Year, reindeer sweater and all, singing The Cardigans’ “Lovefool.” My notes simply read, What the fudge is going on here? (Only I didn’t say “fudge.”) But, really, I’ll take any chance for Rachel to be totally taken off guard and then brought back to her comfort zone by a ’90s pop song. All of her friends are Toddlers & Tiaras mom-coaching her dance moves from the back of the auditorium as the sound starts to get wonky, but before things can get too Requiem for a Dream, she wakes up. A-

It seems all of Rachel’s nightmare-inducing stress is coming from reading negative blog reviews and comments about the Funny Girl previews. Everyone knows that actors “are like a bottomless cup that constantly needs to be filled with love and validation,” but a comments section is no place for that, you naïve young thing. Kurt, playing Rachel’s personal sage with great aplomb tonight, tells her she’s going unplugged, and while I momentarily hoped that meant some hippie acoustic performance of Funny Girl is headed our way, he just means no internet. No comments! No negativity! As Kurt says, “If you need your cup filled, we’ll fill it right here.” Everybody now: AWWWWWW.

NEXT: That’s weird, it doesn’t feel like we’re in New York… HOLD THE PHONE: I was told explicitly that we were done with Lima. Why are Will and Sue doing a walk-and-talk through the halls of McKinley right now? And I guess Will didn’t leave after the Glee Club disbanded, after all. Post-Glee, it seems he’s simply a non-singing history teacher with a very pregnant wife who can no longer fly. (I know I’ve proven I can’t handle this timeline, but I think that the nine months math actually almost works out — right?) Sue requests to take the extra plane ticket off Will’s hands; apparently she used her local news segment to talk a lot of mad trash about New York City even though she’s never been, and shockingly, got a bit of negative feedback. She was just “taking [her] cue from cable news lately and just lying a lot,” but now that viewers have called her out on it, she wants to actually visit the Big Apple to try and redeem her credibility. To be fair, New York is kind of shaped like a dog, I guess, and it does occasionally smell like hot pee; but only if you squint, and when it rains, respectively. (Update: A commenter helpfully corrected that Sue said New York is shaped like a “dong“…yes, that seems much more accurate.)

Will says he’ll give Sue the ticket if she agrees to come to Rachel’s play with him, and before you know it, Sue’s newfound New York excitement turns into those two knuckleheads singing “N.Y.C.” from Annie inside a snow globe. It’s set up like a cute little stage production of painted New York City backdrops, kind of like what a high school show would actually look like if Will hadn’t been spending April Rhodes’ millions on Katy Perry sets. They exit on the painted subway stop and re-enter from the bona fide A/B/C line in the middle of Manhattan. Sue, with a look of genuine wonderment and joy on her face: “This place smells like barf!” B+

Tina has arrived in New York to see Rachel’s opening night and I’m reminded that a little bit of Tina being the worst is hilarious. (I think we all remember what a lot of Tina being the worst is like.) While Rachel is resting her voice, defenseless against Tina’s general Cohen-Chang-ness, Tina can’t stop rattling on to the group gathered in the Brooklyn Loft of Wonders: questioning why their other friends aren’t there, talking about how she’s only seen a few negative blog reviews. All the while, it’s clear Rachel isn’t prepared to handle so much as a “why that gurl so short lookin” on a personal Tumblr. She assures them that she’s fine and heads off to bed, but Kurt wakes up in the middle of the night  to find Rachel reading every negative comment she can find on the Funny Girl previews.

Kurt calls in reinforcements and everyone returns to try to force-feed Rachel tea and play soothing guitar; “someone” even tries to fake a gift basket from Barbra Streisand, but signs her name with two A’s. “Who wrote this, TINA?!” Dammit, Tina! The criticism has completely shot Rachel’s confidence. She’s at her lowest low, so luckily, Sue shows up at the Brooklyn Apartment Ballroom to announce that Will was trying to perv on her with only one bed in their hotel room, so she’ll be staying with them, her former students with whom she has not stayed in touch and whose address she’d have no way of knowing. Oh wait, no, that’s not lucky, that’s damn ridiculous. But not as ridiculous as it gets, so put a pin in that for now.

NEXT: Guess who’s back…back again? Santana lovers rejoice; Santana haters, rest easy. As the line “things could not possibly get any worse” is uttered, the scene cuts to the street outside, where Santana is exiting a cab, looking fabulous. Thank goodness Santana and Sue both got the memo that when arriving in New York, you should always be draped in a black trench coat. Santana probably should have completed her Carmen San(tana)diego look with a hat, though, because a pigeon immediately flies into her head and It. Is. Awesome. Bring on the physical Santana humor, Season 5!

I get whiplash from trying to keep up with whether Santana is being mean or just regular-level sassy, but it seems her nine-month (nine months?) trip to the island of Lesbos has done her well: She’s on her best behavior tonight. Kurt has called her in to do the job that only she can do: kick Rachel Berry’s ass into gear. Santana stomps into Rachel’s room, informs her she’s not there for a pep talk, and immediately starts reading her something from her phone that sounds like a particularly cruel response to Rachel’s Funny Girl performance. It’s actually a comment from 1964, in a review of Barbra Streisand’s original portrayal of Fanny Brice…and if everyone can’t appreciate Barbra, then everyone just has to be comfortable with a little negativity sometimes. Santana tells Rachel there’s no way she can do poorly; all she has to do is get on stage and open her mouth, because they both only have two speeds: “Awesome or Not at All.” With that in mind, Rachel is ready to be Awesome.

And also with that, we are suddenly thrust into a storyline about Sue falling in love with Chris Parnell/Dr. Spaceman…in New York…in the middle of the Funny Girl episode. I understand the need for another plot to break up the Funny Girl storyline, but just about any other plot would have made more sense to be paired with Rachel’s debut than this one. In a meet-cute worthy of Sue Sylvester, Mario (Chris Parnell) and Sue are both trying to scalp their Funny Girl tickets outside the show; Sue takes notice of Mario and seems to immediately become enamored with him. Will still drags her inside, where she promptly complains about the show, leaves five minutes into the performance, runs into Mario who has also left, and goes with him to the empty restaurant he owns to eat dinner. It all ends in making out, and I just…I don’t…Why? Sue is plenty funny, and I laughed at her casually telling Mario that her parents were famous Nazi hunters and mentioning leaving her food-taster (Becky) at home. But could she not have had the same New York storyline, abbreviated to exclude the falling in love part? Or could this perfectly fine subplot have just been used at some other, less solo-oriented time?

Will goes to see Rachel in her dressing room and the tightening in my chest is immediate. That guy is an acquired taste, but he loves his students and his students love him. Rachel is elated to see him, and Schue tells her he always knew she would end up here. Well, first he says he always knew “we” would end up here, because he’s Will Schuester, but at least he catches himself. Rachel tells him that she knows it’s weird, but she got Finn a seat at the show. He always made her promise that she would get him a ticket for her fist show on Broadway, so she did. Will tells her that’s not weird — I tell myself I’m not crying — and Rachel says she’s just nervous to sing “Who Are You Now?” because she always thinks about Finn on that one. Will’s suggestion to just find him in the audience if she gets nervous is quickly voided when he gets the call that Emma’s water just broke, and he has to make an early exit, leaving Rachel with the parting thought that she’s “making [his] dreams come true too.” Oh, Schue…

NEXT: A simple, funny girl… I know that all of the Funny Girl staging was oversimplified and isolated, not very representative of a big Broadway musical; maybe that was too much of a stretch. But for performance purposes, I enjoyed the simplicity. It gave us excellent scenes like this: a continuous close-crop shot of Rachel in her Fanny Brice wig, dressed in that Scene I sailor dress, making her way from her dressing room, through the extras backstage, to her first mark, the sounds of the orchestra warming up slowly fading into her heartbeat as she gets closer and closer to accomplishing the only dream she’s ever had. The curtain rises, and she’s just a girl on stage, opening her mouth, and absolutely slaying “I’m the Greatest Star.” Suddenly, without much activity, we’re supposed to be right in the middle of a Broadway show. But the minimalism makes sense. We’re seeing these numbers more from Rachel’s  perspective than from her audience’s point of view. She’s spent her whole day dreading this moment, her whole life looking forward to it, and now here she is…just doing it. Dreams are only dreams until you achieve them — they’re much simpler after that.

Kurt and Mercedes check on Rachel during intermission to let her know she’s killing it. She’s nervous as her producer comes into check on her too, and while he also thinks she’s doing a great job, he’s a little concerned that Sue (“that man”) stepping over The New York Times critic on her way to leave the show could reflect negatively in their review. Not a particularly encouraging thought for your lead actress, but he reminds Rachel that “critics remember beginnings and endings.” So, with the beginning threatened, it’s time to seal this deal up.

Simultaneously, there is a scene of Sue and Mario flirting with each other, and while I thought the two had perfectly good (re: Sue-level-nutjob) chemistry, I remind you of this scene only to explain why “Who Are You Now” was sung as a duet with Rachel and Sue. I was certainly not expecting that. It bothered me on a fundamental, “I’m still not getting this” level, but they actually sounded nice together. I appreciated the supportive vocal more at the end, though, when we could still hear Jane Lynch’s voice but also focus on Rachel’s performance — remembering that this was the song she was nervous about as tears stream down her face, and a memory of Finn flashes through her mind and on our screens. Like most of the Funny Girl performance, it was understated: a suggestion of emotion, rather than an insistence that we feel exactly what Rachel is feeling in the biggest moment of her life. A (for both Funny Girl performances)

After the show, the producer returns to congratulate Rachel and tell her that all they can do is wait until the all-powerful New York Times review comes out in eight hours. Rachel decides she’s going out with her trusty Lima friends, and Blaine knows just the giant, not-packed gay bar in Greenwich Village. At this bar, everyone knows who Rachel is because they’ve been “tracking Funny Girl for weeks.” I stand by my most of this episode is told from from Rachel’s perspective how else would any of this be possible theory. They insist on a song, and the former McKinley crew immediately breaks into planned choreography and synchronized whistling (so you know I’m in) as “Pumpin Blood” by NONONO starts playing. It is a full-fledged party: dancing on tables, slow-mo shots, Kurt finally letting loose, a giant swing…what more could you need? A-

Finally, it’s time for Rachel to return home to meet her Broadway maker and face the New York Times review. Everyone goes with her to the newsstand and as they pass the review around, reading it aloud between themselves, each line proves more positive than the next. Love it or hate it, the Rachel Is a Huge Broadway Star cookie has crumbled, and she has come out way on top…for now. Mr. Shue calls to hear about the performance and tells everyone that his son has been born, named Daniel Finn Schuester. There’s an quiet beat where everyone takes in the baby’s middle name, followed up by declarations of happiness all around, and a bunch of college kids screaming “I LOVE YOU!” to their high school choir teacher. All is exactly as weird as usual in new Glee world.

Am I alone in thinking this Funny Girl episode was (mostly) a Glee win? Was it way too much Rachel for you? Too much Sue? Too much dream sequence and not enough Broadway production value? Oh, and was that gay bar full of Broadway-tracking fans scene a reference I’m unaware of? Please do share!

Jane Lynch, Lea Michele, and high school anxiety star in Fox’s campy musical.
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  • 6
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  • 05/19/09
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  • In Season
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