By Ed Masley, Special for USA TODAY
PHOENIX — The Gleeks were out in force — some wearing homemade T-shirts, others thrusting pom-poms in the air — as the cast of TV's hottest show launched a four-city national tour at Dodge Theatre Saturday, with a spirited romp through their signature song, Journey's Don't Stop Believin'.
"I'm just excited to see what they have planned for the rest of the country," said Mikael Short, 21, before the show, having flown into Phoenix from Utah to witness the launch with a Gleek she'd met on Twitter, Glendale's Darien Solaris, 24.
And what they had planned, as expected, was equal parts musical theater, giddy pop culture phenomenon and Journey-loving rock show, with taped appearances from the two adult stars of Glee, Matthew Morrison and Jane Lynch.
It was Lynch, in fact, who welcomed Glee fans to the table with a withering "Hello suckers. Congratulations …. You're all idiots!"
The stage was filled with mattresses as the castmates jumped their way, in matching PJs, through Van Halen's Jump. A shiny Escalade was wheeled on stage for a smoldering, gospel-flavored take on Jazmine Sullivan's Bust Your Windows by the ever-soulful Amber Riley as Mercedes, while cheerleaders danced along in string bikini tops. Teen heartthrob Cory Monteith, as quarterback Finn Hudson, whose every move seemed to inspire more shrieking than most, played drums with more aplomb than skill on the concert's big sing-along moment, Sweet Caroline. And several members of the cast, including Chris Colfer as Kurt, donned Lady Gaga costumes for a smile-inducing Bad Romance.
They all performed in character, which meant Kevin McHale in a wheelchair, and Heather Morris, as Brittany, acting delightfully ditsy, asking Morrison's glee club director Will Schuester, for instance, "Who are all these people?"
Musical highlights ranged from big group sings on Don't Stop Believin', My Life Would Suck Without You, Jump and a mash-up of Journey's Any Way You Want It with Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin', to solo spotlights. Lea Michele, as Rachel, swaggered through the crowd enunciating Barbra Streisand's old Funny Girl song, Don't Rain On My Parade. And Riley stole the show with her powerful star turns on Bust Your Windows and Christina Aguilera's Beautiful, which boasted a big gospel ending.
Riley notwithstanding, the songs that came across best live were on the wholesome — some would argue squeaky-clean — side of the pop divide (although one did say "suck" a lot). The raps and overt sexuality on Salt-N-Pepa's Push It felt a little forced and out of character, especially sandwiched between My Life Would Suck Without You and Streisand. But the show's producers obviously know that, which explains the emphasis on Journey over hip-hop.
And speaking of Journey, after setting the tone for the concert with Don't Stop Believin', the Journey medley that followed Faithfully couldn't have felt more like a grand finale by the time they hit that final "Na na na na na na." But they managed to rally and finish the set with a crowd-pleasing version of Madonna's Like A Prayer, with backing singers dressed in choir robes.
They eased into the encore, the primary cast members seated in a row for Cyndi Lauper's bittersweet True Colors. But they went out with a bang — and a shower of confetti — on a triumphant rendition of Queen's Somebody to Love, which, like Jump and Don't Stop Believin', felt like an actual Glee club arrangement.
As Gleeks compared notes in the lobby, Solaris and Short said they ended up crying, it was so good — maybe even better than the TV show itself.
Referring to the show that had her flying in from Utah, Short said, "If you think that's good, try timesing that by 10 or 20." Only then, she said, could "Glee fans" understand how great the live show is. Then, with a smile, she added, "They're much better looking in person."