For an entertainer in Bridgit Mendler’s position, the greatest opportunity and seemingly single biggest struggle come from the same source: Disney.
It’ll make you famous, as Disney Channel did for Mendler, the 21-year-old former star of the sitcom “Good Luck Charlie.” But it’ll also cause people to wonder whether, outside that mouse-ear-shaped shadow, they should take you seriously.
That question played itself out Saturday night at the Erie County Fair, where Mendler – now a Hollywood Records recording artist – played an hourlong, 14-song set.
My verdict: She’s serious, and those of us watching should be, too. While Mendler doesn’t have the pop presence of, say, a Miley Cyrus or Selena Gomez, she possesses an onstage quality they don’t – a personality with some earthiness.
That regular-girl persona emerges in her lyrics and, even more so, her simple presentation: Mendler had a four-piece band (guitar, bass, keys, drums) and no backup dancers, leaving her to command the stage by herself. Wearing dark ankle boots, black-and-white, high-waisted shorts and a patterned crop top, Mendler had no costume changes and, in fact, never left the stage.
But she did vary up the show. Mendler mixed several songs from her 2012 debut album, “Hello, My Name is…,” with a handful of newer works (she’s in the midst of developing her sophomore release) and Sam Smith and Coldplay covers.
In an interview a couple of weeks ago, Mendler told me that aside from the set list itself, she improvises everything in her show: the song introductions, the choreography.
It’s in this creative space that Mendler flourishes.
Though the crowd was small – the track area in front of the stage was filled only when the spattering of fans in the grandstand were allowed to fill the closer seats – she seemed genuinely happy to see the fans. Several times through the show, Mendler stopped to acknowledge individual fans. At one point, she had the lights brought up so she could read and acknowledge the dozen or so signs toted in by fans – most of whom were preteen girls dressed in neon colors or homemade Bridgit Mendler T-shirts.
She maintained an easy banter with the crowd. At one point, Mendler motioned behind the stage, where a taut high wire stood at the ready for Nik Wallenda’s Sunday daredevil walk.
“Is that what you guys do in New York?” she said. “It’s crazy!”
Later, when Mendler strapped on a keytar for the song “City Lights,” she admitted that she enjoyed the instrument but lacked expertise in it.
“It’s not my skill set,” she said, “but unlike the tightrope, if I mess up, I don’t die.”
Joke aside, when Mendler did mess up (mistakes were rare and small – she repeatedly referred to Hamburg as “Erie”), people didn’t mind. While the younger fans were simply happy to see her, the older ones – meaning parents – seemed to appreciate her personable, unscripted approach.
That said, Mendler’s acting ability shone through. Her facial expressions and onstage movements were big; she physically plays out the lyrics of her songs.
Take the closing lines of her song “Hurricane”:
“He picks me up like, he’s got the way of the hurricane.”
Mendler raises her arm high, then snaps her hand to her cheek.
“And I think I’m fine like, I’m in the eye of the hurricane.”
She closes her eyes, then opens them slowly, casting her gaze adrift to the left, as if staring into the distance.
Mendler has a mouse-sized audience, a singer-songwriter vibe to her music, and her delivery is reminiscent of a musical actress.
How those factors will coalesce and evolve over the years is an open question. And the acting jobs she opts to accept – or avoid – will also play a key role in shaping her brand. (Could Broadway beckon someday? Probably.)
But should you take her seriously?
Surely. Mendler takes her art seriously. She doesn’t have the in-your-face starpower of certain ex-Disney stars, but that’s OK. With pop comes fizzle. Mendler doesn’t seem to be fizzling out anytime soon. She’s different – and that’s good.