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Darren Criss: Renaissance Man

Blaine Anderson from “Glee” is all grown up now, and he’s a renaissance man. Winning an Emmy last year and a Golden Globe on Jan. 6 for his performance in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, Darren Criss is a star on the rise. When I heard Darren Criss and Lea Michele were going on tour together last summer without a Los Angeles show, I was devastated. Two of my biggest musical role models were publicly collaborating for the first time since “Glee,” and I wouldn’t be there to witness their silky duets and magnetic chemistry.

Suddenly, my prayers were answered. A star drawn in Sharpie on my left palm assigned me a random seat and granted me access to the most intimate concert I have yet to experience. The Largo at the Coronet is like no place I’ve ever been before, and Darren Criss agrees. According to my uncle, who plays bass in Criss’s backup band, Criss was more excited to play a solo show at the Largo than he was to play his sold-out arena shows for thousands of fans with Michele. I didn’t understand his reasoning until the lights dimmed and all audience members were asked to put their phones away for the entire duration of the show. No one took a single photo or video. Darren’s candid anecdotes, interactions with fans and perfect vibrato can only be recalled by memory. There is something really special about that.At many concerts, the artist asks the audience to put their phones away for one song in hopes of creating one moment of genuine human connection. It’s usually difficult for people to comply with the request for five minutes, let alone a whole show. The atmosphere of the Largo was different. Everyone was there to see Criss be himself and share his talent – not to flaunt their front row seats on social media. The energy was palpable from Criss to his audience and vice versa. People sang along when encouraged and remained silent during Criss’s most vulnerable performances.

It was like I was in my very own episode of “Glee,” listening to Blaine serenade the William McKinley student body. The Largo feels like nothing larger or fancier than a high school auditorium, down to its rickety wooden folding chairs. Criss was not much more extravagant in his teenage years, when he played random gigs in bars and at Maggiano’s at the Grove. At his Largo show, he wore a plaid shirt and tight black jeans. His bandmates read their sheet music off iPads… almost like a wedding band, but in the best way possible.

They didn’t take requests, but they made up a decent portion of the set list on the spot, which made the performance that much more vulnerable and honest. Each song was more unexpected than the last, proving that Criss can sing anything. He flipped from Blaine Anderson’s infamous “Glee” version of “Teenage Dream” to a stripped down rendition of the Chiffons’ “One Fine Day” and then segued into “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables. He jammed through original songs, “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” and one of his favorite Italian pop songs, just to remind the audience that he’s fluent in Italian as well as music history, guitar, and piano. To top off his mind-boggling repertoire, his encore boasted the opening number to his beloved “A Very Potter Musical,” in all ten characters’ distinct voices and parts. Real Criss fans knew every word to the hilarious Harry Potter musical he wrote with friends when he was in college.
Every aspect of Criss’s performance was intentional and eloquent, yet his demeanor remained casual and friendly. Even when he had to glance at miscellaneous papers on the floor to remember certain lyrics, he performed with grace. Though I haven’t yet seen his performance in the hit TV miniseries, I’m not shocked by his success. I look forward to watching Criss continue to weld off-Broadway showtunes, television drama series and his own contemporary songs into a truly dynamic career.