19 August, 2011

LA Review...

By Lauren Wilson for the Orange County Register
Fans cheer for Josh Groban at Staples

The singer’s arena show may have been low-budget and predictable, but it was satisfying all the same.

Josh Groban has put a lot of work lately into cultivating his regular-guy, funnyman image. His music may be more serious, but he seems to have no problem poking fun at himself.

Doubters can watch his pompous cameos on Glee, his musical rendition of Kanye West’s greatest tweets on Jimmy Kimmel Live! or, most recently, his turn as a Emma Stone’s dorky, Blackberry-addicted boyfriend in Crazy Stupid Love.

Groban’s hair-ruffling, aw-shucks form of self-deprecation adds to his public persona as an ordinary Joe who simply happens to have an extraordinary voice. Donning a casual white T-shirt beneath his black sports coat, with sneakers peeking out from the bottom of his dress pants, Groban looked every bit as rascally boyish Wednesday night at Staples Center as he did 10 years ago when he dropped his self-titled debut.

Despite his successful singing career, the L.A. native is quick to remind audiences of his original thespian intents: he performed in comedy troupes in high school and college and appeared on Ally McBeal before he ever released a record. His prior training lends a certain flair to his showmanship, a crucial factor given how much this production relies on his voice and charm.

His latest tour is dubbed Straight to You, and the show is exactly what the name implies: a direct, no-frills performance that delivered the music and the man without any big-budget special effects. There weren’t even any JumboTron close ups, a disadvantage for those stuck in the back or in some of the more remote triple-decker luxury suites.

Groban’s only real props were a small platform at center-court (for interludes away from the main stage) plus intricate designs projected onto a backdrop, transforming it to suit the song or mood. During “Oceania,” for instance, it became an undulating sea that was later appropriately shaded red, white and blue during “The War at Home,” his salute to troops.

The upper nosebleed levels at Staples Center were curtained off, giving the illusion of an intimate, packed show (as intimate as this arena could ever be). The crowd generally skewed older, comprised of folks who left kids or grandkids at home for a classy night out; some even dressed and brought binoculars as if they were headed to the theater. Needless to say, the audience was more docile than your typical pop-concert crowd; they remained glued to their seats until they were “raised up” (pardon the pun) during Groban’s show-closing smash.

As for his vocal gymnastics, Groban’s tone was reliably pitch-perfect. His effortless baritone makes the contrast between Groban the classical pop singer and Groban the goofy guy even starker. The chatty chanteur fostered a chummy bond with his audience, spitting out rapid-fire quips likely prepared beforehand but which nonetheless went over smoothly, eliciting laugh after laugh. He came off like a cheesy but affable guy you’d invite over for dinner, the kind of person who’s never experienced an awkward silence in his life.

And he made up for the lack of effects with plenty of fun segments, banging out a drum solo, for instance, during a “Live and Let Die” passage that meandered into his next song. Afterward, he indulged some audience participation, answering questions attendees had texted beforehand.

The queries ranged from Groban’s favorite “yo mama” joke to a request to sing with him onstage from Natalie, a recent musical theater graduate from UCI. Groban happily obliged and crooned a duet version of “Happy Birthday to You” with her for another fan in the crowd.

Later in the show, he brought up a couple who had been together 44 years and served them wine, plus two likely underage singletons who received milk instead. While they enjoyed their drinks, he asked the couple for their secret to a long marriage.

“She’ll answer,” the husband shot back facetiously.

Then he sat the foursome down on inflatable plastic couches (the show really was low-budget) and cheekily told them the next song – “Broken Vow,” off his second album, Closer – is about cheating.

Groban’s expert vocals coupled with his easygoing demeanor made for a fun, low-key performance that pulled no punches but also held few surprises. The straightforward predictability may have detracted from the night’s excitement for some, but were I to base my assessment on the reaction of the hefty men ahead of me shamelessly wailing along to “You Raise Me Up,” I’d chalk this one up as a win for Groban.

Jazzy opening act ELEW, meanwhile, tore up his piano like a rock star, covering popular favorites that included Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” and the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.”

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