Whitney Houston, pop's latest phenomenon, walked on stage Sunday night at the Greek Theatre to a burst of orchestral fanfare befitting royalty. Unfortunately, the gesture wasn't tongue-in-cheek.
The fanfare would be corny even for Barbra Streisand or Aretha Franklin, who have enjoyed years of acclaim and public acceptance. For a newcomer like Houston, the hoopla seemed overblown and silly.
Her debut album may have sold umpteen million copies and her appearance on this year's Grammy telecast may have been honored Sunday with an Emmy for best individual performance in a variety or music program, but the 23-year-old is still far from a consummate--or even consistent--performer.
Once Houston got down to business, things looked promising. Dressed in a sparkly suit, boots and white stockings, she opened with a showy rendition of Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' ." She can't dance like the song's author, but she has a winning, personable way with uptempo numbers. There's something warm and endearing about her youthful, earnest approach.
Yet, she wasn't able to build on the opening blitz. The problems: a tendency toward mediocre material and an ultimate lack of commanding vocal character.
There's an innocence about Houston that enables her to be quite appealing on such lighter pop tunes as "You Give Good Love," but she rarely challenges the audience--or herself--with more gripping or emotionally involving fare. The exception was her impassioned rendition of the inspirational hit, "The Greatest Love of All."
While defenders might say that more vocal character will come with age, there's no guarantee. Franklin was already well on the way to mastering her interpretive skills by the time she was Houston's age.
Like Madonna, this leggy ex-model is ideal for the video age. Thanks to flashy staging and imaginative editing, she can transform marginal pop material into something quite special. Where the rebellious, trend-setting Madonna thumbs her nose at convention, Houston is strictly a good, old-fashioned singer who stays safely within the parameters of pop.
Except for the sassy "How Will I Know" and a handful of other moments, Houston demonstrated little of the impeccable timing and energy that brighten her videos. If she doesn't develop that added artistic edge, she may well settle for the glittery, pop complacency of a Diana Ross. She's at the Greek through Wednesday night.