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'The Voice' Season 13 premiere: It's game on with new coach Jennifer Hudson, ex-NFL star Esera Tuaolo

Lyndsey Parker

There’s no way NBC could’ve known that The Voice Season 13 would premiere just one day after nationwide Colin Kaepernick-inspired NFL protests that included, among other controversies, Voice Season 7 runner-up Meghan Linsey taking a knee after singing the national anthem at a Tennessee Titans home game. But the passionate audition by 48-year-old former pro football player Esera Tuaolo obviously could not have been better timed.

OK, so Tuaolo — who has served as an advocate for the LGBTQ community, even testifying at the State Legislature Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in opposition to an anti-gay marriage bill — didn’t take a knee during his audition. (While The Voice hasn’t shied away from political commentary in the past — despite producer Mark Burnett’s longstanding relationship with Donald Trump — this “Blind Audition” episode was taped months ago, and besides, it’s unclear where Tuaolo stands on the whole national anthem/kneeling debate.) However, Tuaolo did make his own statement of sorts, revealing that when he retired from the NFL in 2002, he came out as gay and struggled with depression. That backstory made his audition song, Andra Day’s joyful unity anthem “Rise Up,” all the more impactful.

While Tuaolo’s performance wasn’t flawless — incumbent coach Adam Levine and new cast member Jennifer Hudson noted that his lower register and breath control needed work — it was impossible not to cheer for the guy as he sang from the heart. Interestingly, Tuaolo signed up with self-declared “football geek” Blake Shelton — not Jennifer, who seemed like the more obvious choice. But the Super Bowl veteran declared, “I intend to win this,” so perhaps he just wanted to go with the coach with the most winning playbook.

The Voice must already be gunning for a fifth Emmy — or at least another GLAAD Media Award — because another standout Monday contestant with a moving, made-for-TV story was Chris Weaver, a worship leader by day and N.Y.C. drag queen by night. (Maybe Chris’s inclusion on The Voice will make up for The Voice shockingly beating out RuPaul’s Drag Race for this year’s Best Reality Competition Emmy.) Chris, who grew up gay in the church (his mother is a Pentecostal preacher), unfortunately didn’t perform as his drag alter ego, Nedra Belle. Perhaps he’s saving that for Drag Race Season 10. But his performance of the Otis Redding-popularized “Try a Little Tenderness” definitely had Jennifer — who, like Chris, learned to sing in church and in drag clubs — practically yelling out, Shangela-style, “Halleloo!”

It turns out this wasn’t the first time Chris had performed for Jennifer: Two years ago, he sang at a Broadway party in honor of her show The Color Purple, and apparently he was so great, J.Hud threw a shoe at him. (That’s a compliment, in case you didn’t know.) This time, Jennifer borrowed fellow coach Miley Cyrus’s massive, KISS-like silver platform sandal — the kind of footwear that could inflict some serious damage! — and enthusiastically hurled it in Chris’s direction. “When you sing like that, you better be prepared to duck,” she quipped.

Chris earned a four-chair turn, and I think wild child Miley, a major drag fan herself (she memorably performed with about 30 RuPaul’s Drag Race queens at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards), would have been a perfect fit for Chris. He has a classic churchy voice — the sort of big, blustery, ballad-ready voice that commands attention on TV talent shows, but is often out of place in the actual pop marketplace — so Miley could have helped bring out his funky, freak-flag-flying theatricality. But of course, Chris went with Jennifer, who gave him a very aggressive sales pitch and proved right away that she’s going to give Adam, Miley, and even Blake some stiff competition this season. There’s a reason why Jennifer is the reigning champ of The Voice U.K.

Speaking of that, J.Hud’s debut on Monday’s Voice premiere was notable because it was the first time that an alumnus from American Idol — the show that, frankly, made The Voice possible — appeared on this rival program as a full-time coach. Jennifer’s recent casting raised quite a few eyebrows, especially when only a couple days later it was announced that original “American Idol” Kelly Clarkson will be a coach on Season 14 — right around the time of ABC’s American Idol reboot. Jennifer played the “Idol card” several times Monday, noting that she was once in these contestants’ position, but of course the actual words “American Idol” never came out of her mouth.

Still, though, Jennifer had a point. And she had a great first night. It’ll be interesting to see if her unique reality-competition background gives her an edge, as it did in Britain.

These were the other successful auditions of Monday’s Season 13 premiere:

Mitchell Lee

This ruggedly handsome Nashville woodworker showed up in a Canadian tuxedo and capably warbled Hootie & The Blowfish’s “Hold My Hand” while America’s housewives swooned and three chairs spun. I was actually surprised that he got a three-chair turn. He was easy on the ears (and, yes, the eyes), but the easygoing Hootie tune didn’t exactly showcase his range. And this was an especially unexciting performance following Chris’s fiery soul song. However, as Adam pointed out (before Mitchell went with Blake instead, naturally), Mitchell is a “strong singer with no B.S.” and a “good-looking dude; ladies are gonna love you.” Mitchell will probably be the Barrett Baber of Season 13.

Member of: Team Blake

Janice Freeman

A true survivor (she lost her partner to cancer, then battled cervical cancer herself), this 32-year-old powerhouse proclaimed, “I fought my whole life for this moment.” She then turned Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” into a rock ‘n’ soul workout à la Tina Turner, Mary J. Blige, or Kimberly Nichole, the “Rock Ballerina” of The Voice Season 7. Her determination and fearlessness infused every note. “You turned this alternative rock song into this swampy nastiness,” said Adam. “I like that [version] better than the original!” said Miley. “Your passion is clearly bigger than your fear,” said Jennifer. Janice teared up, and Miley and Jennifer rushed the stage to hug her. I thought Jennifer had this one in the bag, especially when she bonded with Janice — who’d earlier said sadly, “Death is my life” — by saying, “I’ve been through things myself, so I can relate in every way.” (Jennifer was presumably referring to the tragic murders of her mother, brother, and nephew in 2008.) But Janice said she wanted to grow and learn from a different sort of artist, so she picked Miley. I think this could be a cool combination; Miley always goes with unexpected song choices, so she will definitely challenge Janice artistically.

MEMBER OF: Team Miley

Shi’Ann Jones

Shi’Ann is clearly this season’s token “OMG she’s only 15!!!!” contestant — but, to be fair, it was a total shocker to hear the Ray Charles/Aretha Franklin gospel-inflected “Drown in My Own Tears” come out of this sweet teenager’s mouth. As Blake Shelton might say, holy crap! This was a powerful first impression, a real gauntlet-tossing opener. In future episodes, Shi’Ann will need to tone it down and not sing everything at a cranked-to-11 volume, but this was definitely the way to grab attention right out of the gate. Fierce competitor J.Hud stared daggers at her fellow coaches, forbidding them to turn around; cocky Blake ignored such threats, but J.Hud got her way anyway. She basically declared Shi’Ann the mini-me daughter of her dreams, so she’ll be the ideal coach to mentor this little girl with the huge voice.

Member of: Team J.Hud

Dave Crosby

This Seattle dad’s duets with his adorable 4-year-old daughter Claire went viral this year, leading to Claire’s appearances on Little Big Shots and Ellen. Now, it’s Daddy’s turn for TV glory. His unexpected song pick, Death Cab for Cutie’s darkly romantic indie-folk ballad “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” demonstrated a high taste level, which, along his hushed and gentle delivery, immediately piqued Adam’s interest. “The purity and beauty of your voice is irreplaceable,” Adam told Dave. “It’s like your voice has its own echo chamber,” added Blake. But Adam, a new father of a little girl himself, was already a fan of Dave and Claire’s YouTube videos (he even invited Claire to the Voice stage to get more screentime and reprise her adorable “You Got a Friend in Me” performance), so he and Dave had more of a connection. Adam often does well with singer-songwriters, so this guy could be the Joshua Davis or Brendan Fletcher of Season 13. And Claire can come back and try out in Season 32!

Member of: Team Adam

Brandon Showell

This 7th-grade schoolteacher and former cruise ship singer started off a bit wobbly and flat on Shawn Mendes’s “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” — ironically, he seemed to be holding back — but when he let it rip during the chorus, he showed potential. Eventually, Adam, Miley, and Jennifer all spun around. A likably green but enthusiastic performer, Brandon connected with J.Hud over their shared cruise-singer backgrounds, but he surprisingly chose to go with Adam instead. I have a feeling that Brandon will end up being Battle or Knockout Rounds fodder — there’s likely a montage in his future — but maybe he and Adam will prove me wrong.

Member of: Team Adam

Lucas Holliday

OK, this 26-year-old Lansing cashier is exactly what this show is supposed to be all about. He’s one of those double-take, voice-doesn’t-match-the-face soul singers. He’s the Josh Kaufman of Season 13. Last year, an amateur video of Lucas belting out Maxwell’s “Ascension” went viral, leading to TV appearances and even an invitation to perform with Maxwell in concert. Still seeking his big break, this Monday he auditioned with the falsetto-laden Maxwell version of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work,” an ambitious song choice for sure. I preferred Lucas’s lower register to his Mariah/dog-whistle high notes, and sometimes he did sound too much like a Maxwell impersonator, but overall this was an impressive audition. I was surprised that only Jennifer turned around, but I am so glad she did, because the instantly GIF-able expression on her face was priceless. The other coaches were equally flabbergasted when they eventually saw Lucas. “Why is Frazier standing on the stage?” gasped Blake. “No offense, because you’re brilliant, but you’re, like, the whitest dude. I’m questioning the whole world right now,” said Adam. Jennifer and Lucas then spectacularly dueted on “God Is Able,” while Jennifer mouthed, “He’s white,” still stunned. “This is going to be one of the best pairings we’ve ever had on the show,” predicted grinning host Carson Daly. “Lucas is everything that a show like The Voice represents,” Jennifer asserted. Now I just want to know whether Lucas can sing songs that aren’t by Maxwell.

Member of: Team J.Hud

Brooke Simpson

A 26-year-old Native American who grew up in a tight-knit tribal community singing in church and worshipping the Spice Girls, Brooke closed the show with another shoe-toss-worthy, four-chair-turn audition. Brooke showcased a rich, deep, huge voice, plus a ton of warmth and raw emotion, on Demi Lovato’s masterclass vocal workout “Stone Cold,” after which Adam called her “one in a million” and told her, “I just know you’re the one.” Adam thought he’d sealed the deal when he went in for a hug (“You guys smell that? Smells like victory!”), but the other coaches laid it on thick as well. “I thought I knew singing — until you just came out here and did that,” said Jennifer. Miley boldly placed Brooke’s hand on her heart — which, Brooke, confirmed, was pounding wildly with excitement — and pleaded, “Brooke, our spirits are similar. … The thing that you can take away from me is how invested I am in my artists. I will spend as much time as you need. I will fight for you with song choices. … I want to help you reach your full potential.” Sorry, Adam. Miley’s heart wants what the heart wants.

Member of: Team Miley

Assessing the teams so far, it seems both Jennifer and Miley have a solid chance of following in Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keys’s footsteps and scoring another girl-powered Voice victory. But the season is still very young, and Blake does have a Super Bowl footballer on his team, so it’s anybody’s game. We will see what happens when The Voice returns Tuesday for more blind auditions.

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