The return of Cee Lo Green (New and improved! With a full-head, swirly henna tattoo!) and Christina Aguilera (skinny, flat-haired and with cleavage modestly covered) was marked with appropriate fanfare Monday night on the premiere of Season 5 of "The Voice."
"It's like getting the original band back together and jamming one more time," Blake "Mr. Three-peat" Shelton said. Later, Shelton's bromantic partner, Adam Levine, joked that it was "like the Beatles, but better." And even though the original four coaches may not quite be the lads from Liverpool, the reunion was cause for celebration and, frankly, a sense of relief.
Last season's brave newbies, Shakira and Usher, had done the best they could as red-chair fillers, but the chemistry of the four original coaches -- who began the show with a comfortable "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" -- is a big part of the Emmy-winning show's appeal (congrats on the win, guys).
It laid the groundwork for the season, making it a more-or-less even playing field: Shelton, who may be dialing back last season's all-country-all-the-time approach and seeking a more varied team, is riding high after a string of three wins. Levine, with only one win (in Season 1) under his belt, is pecking at his pal's heels, noting that, in the NBA, no team has won more than three championships in a row in decades. Aguilera says she's returned refreshed and hungry for a win; she wants to claim the first victory for a female coach on "The Voice."
And Green? Well, he's still Cee Lo. Cool as ever -- and as crazily costumed, dressed for the blind auditions in a dramatic red leather jacket and matching pants. At one point, Levine accused him of "stealing Michael Jackson's clothes." Cute.
Then there were the singers.
Kat Robichaud, from Raleigh, N.C., stepped out in sweet striped slacks and energetically kicked up her platform shoes in an audition she said was inspired by her dad, a "Voice" fan who'd raised her on musicals and died in February. Her "I've Got the Music in Me" prompted Shelton, Aguilera and Green to push their buttons. But it was Levine who admiringly dubbed her "Raspy McRasperson." And even though Shelton and Aguilera did what they could to persuade her to pick them, Green made the most impassioned appeal, telling the singer her voice "engulfed" him and set him "on fire" -- and that he loved and wanted her. Robichaud, a fan of Queen and David Bowie, apparently loved and wanted him right back. She joined Team Cee Lo.
Green also snapped up cutesy-voiced 17-year-old Caroline Pennell, who cut her teeth and overcame shyness singing at camp. Her "Anything Could Happen" spun Shelton as well. He complimented her tone, called her singing "badass," and told her he wanted her to believe in herself as a vocalist "first and foremost." But she had eyes for the show's resident king of quirk, choosing Green, she explained, "because he looked like he'd take good care of me, as a person." Green later said her voice sounded "like sunshine," so yeah, a good match.
Fifty-four-year-old Donna Allen, a veteran singer from Key West, Fla., who had toured with Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine back in the day, said she wanted to be the "first person over 40 to win 'The Voice,'" noting that she's an experienced trailblazer, having been the first black homecoming queen in her high school and the first black cheerleader for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She overcame the first hurdle toward her goal, spinning Aguilera and Levine with her soulful "You Are So Beautiful." Aguilera made a hard sell, telling Allen she was "so beautiful to me" and that her voice was "like the heavens opening up." But Allen picked Levine, who showed his gratitude by later comparing her to Whitney Houston and Tina Turner.
Matthew Schuler, a West Chester University rugby player and straight-A student from Yardley, Penn., who is the son of two pastors, had his pick of all four coaches after his smooth version of "Cough Syrup." Everyone begged, but Aguilera's pleas proved most effective. "My heart is telling me that I gotta go with Christina," he said. She admitted she was surprised he'd picked her but seemed more excited to have beaten Levine for him than anything else.
Levine did better with 26-year-old Nic Hawk, a musical-theater guy who returned home to help his mom and kid brother, who has epilepsy, after his stepfather left them. The tough times -- he supported the family by bartending and teaching hip-hop (krumping, twerking -- "What are you gonna do?" he said) -- seem to have done little to diminish his effervescence. He unabashedly flirted with Levine, who flirted right back. "What's going on, handsome?" Hawk said, after spinning Levine and Green with "Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops!)." "What's your name, handsome," Levine responded, almost reflexively. Overcoming some reluctance -- "I don't know if I'll be able to focus because you're so good looking" -- Hawk picked Levine as his coach, prompting concern from bromantic rival Shelton. "That's going to be a conflict," Shelton warned Levine. "You can't have a relationship with someone on your team."
The next singer to make it through was Shelbie Z, a stylist and pageant consultant from Jasper, Ala. Shelbie had won a string of pageants in her youth but stopped competing when she was 10 because, she noted, "I am a bigger girl." She also had a big passion for music burning inside her "like a fire." Her powerhouse performance of "Here for the Party" turned all the judges except Levine. Everyone knew who she was going to choose. "Those boots are made for Shelton," Green said. Yep, Team Blake for Shelbie Z.
Shelton's "man crush" (his words) on the next contestant, Josh Logan, however, went unrequited. Logan, who'd put his dreams of music stardom on hold to provide for the son he fathered at age 16, caught the attention of Shelton, Aguilera and Levine with his "Too Close." But he seemed frankly turned off by Shelton and Levine's closeness and clowning. "This is awkward," Logan said as the two coaches left their chairs for a hug. "Honestly, I think I gotta go with Christina," Logan said, later noting, with approval, that she was "very serious in her demeanor."
Last to make it through was 22-year-old James Wolpert, who may be this year's geeky-cute male answer to last season's Michelle Chamuel. From Lancaster County, Penn., Wolpert dropped out of the esteemed Carnegie Mellon University, where he was studying computer illustration, to make it in music. He'd taken a job at the Apple store in Pittsburgh and taken to busking on the streets but hadn't made great inroads in his musical career. That may have changed with his blind audition; his "Love Interruption" spun all four chairs: Green, Levine, Shelton and then finally Aguilera. "Dude, you can win. You can win this for sure," Levine told him, nabbing Wolpert for his team and earning a spanking from Aguilera.
On Tuesday night, the blinds continue with more triumphs and heartbreak. On Monday's show, several talented singers didn't make it through. But even then the show's kindness was on full display -- Green went backstage to encourage 15-year-old hopeful Matthew Brea. "Don't give up," the experienced coach told the teary teen.
Aw. Welcome back, guys.
Any favorite contestants so far?