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Television Review

‘Glee Project’ serves a cappella in the raw

In the premiere of “The Glee Project’’ on Sunday night, contestants sing Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.’’ In the premiere of “The Glee Project’’ on Sunday night, contestants sing Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.’’ (Tyler Golden/NBCU)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / June 10, 2011

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There’s something sweet about this new reality contest. Yes, the reason for creating Oxygen’s “The Glee Project’’ is a bit cynical — to keep “Glee’’ fresh in our minds over the summer, when the mothership is on break. Executive produced by “Glee’’ creator Ryan Murphy, the new competition has 12 kids proclaiming their Gleekhood 100 times per episode as they vie for a seven-episode role on “Glee.’’ The show’s graphics are all lifted from “Glee,’’ and the judges include Murphy and actors from the show (first up: Darren Criss).

This is a place holder that looks a little like an infomercial.

But “The Glee Project,’’ which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m., has heart, too, as it takes you behind the slick, overproduced veneer that is “Glee.’’ We get a close-up view of why certain kids are cast and others aren’t, how hard they all work, and how much each has at stake. The young performers on “The Glee Project’’ — including two with local connections, Alex Newell from Lynn and Bryce Vine of Berklee College of Music — are uniformly vivid and memorable, and it’s easy to root for them. When they sing Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours’’ together in the premiere, their joy is irresistible.

Culled from 40,000 applicants, the 12 finalists are all energetic actors, dancers, and singers, so they aren’t exactly shrinking violets. They already know their own strengths and what kind of character they might play on a show such as “Glee.’’ There’s little of the discomfort and few of the identity issues that plague many of the “American Idol’’ contestants; the “Glee’’ wannabes are easy to read, and easy to sympathize with. Many of them seem as though they were once like the kids on “Glee’’ — marginalized in their high schools for being nerdy or, God forbid, “artsy.’’

At 20, Matheus is 4 feet 9 inches, and music has clearly helped him find a place among his peers. Ellis is an 18-year-old who has a little-girlish quality that she must use to her benefit, in the manner of Bernadette Peters. Alex, also 18, who one expert says “has an amazing sense of confidence,’’ sings with a range that often makes him sound like a woman. He knows this about himself, and he celebrates it.

The coaches, too, are appealing as they try to cultivate each contestant. From casting director Robert Ulrich to choreographer Zach Woodlee and vocal producer Nikki Anders, they all seem able to both nurture the talent and push the kids hard. You can see the enjoyment of their jobs on their faces as they watch the competitors succeed at being themselves onstage. As Ulrich says, the show “is about finding someone who will inspire the writers to write about them,’’ and not about finding the best singer or dancer.

The kids are put through a few different challenges in the premiere, all of which help us see how the “Glee’’ actors actually put together a song for the show. I’m not a big fan of “Glee’’ these days, not just because of its narrative ADD, but because the performances are so overly polished. The singing and dancing lacks the kind of rawness you might find in a stage musical or at a high school. But “The Glee Project’’ lets us observe the contestants learning their dances and going into the studio to sing their parts. We watch them rehearsing, so that when they finally lip-synch and dance in step in a video, we understand the work that went into it. On “Glee,’’ we only see the results, which are always glossy and perfect.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

THE GLEE PROJECT

On: Oxygen

Time: Sunday night, 9-10