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Pop Music Review

No Pedestals for 'Idol'

Pop tour based on hit TV program is predictable and amateurish, with the weak performers dragging the better ones down.

October 10, 2002|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO--The "American Idol" concert tour opened Tuesday at Cox Arena here minus almost all of the features that made the TV show such a sensation.

There was no Simon Cowell, the tough-talking judge.

No Paula Abdul, the cheerleading den mother.

No tension over whom viewers were going to vote off the show.

No tears of victory or defeat.

All it had was the show's weakest link: the singers.

There was so little of interest going on for most of the two-hour affair that they ought to rename the tour "American Idle."

The sophistication level was about that of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers tour of the mid-'90s--only the bulk of the audience Tuesday was 15 to 50 rather than the Rangers' 4-to-6 age range.

When did the "American Idol" brain trust come up with the concept for this show? On the way down from Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon?

The opening half was devoted to parading the show's 10 finalists in predictable countdown fashion for one song each, ending with winner Kelly Clarkson.

Leaning on material from the new "American Idol" album, each singer was backed by a faceless five-piece band and three spirited support vocalists. To add some sparkle, the singers' images were projected on three video screens and several of the numbers were highlighted by gigantic bursts of fire, a la KISS.

For anyone who didn't follow the "American Idol" show, however, it was hard by intermission to remember just who sang what. Was it A.J. who sang "My Cherie Amour," or Ejay? or RJ?

I do remember it was Jim Verraros who sang Lionel Richie's "Easy," and it wasn't pretty.

This show--which will reach the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim on Nov. 15--may have been a hit in prime time, but those four singers aren't ready for an arena stage.

They moved about the stage with steps and smiles that looked as if they came from hours of practicing in the mirror, and the singing lacked any individual edge. Among the females, Ryan Starr was equally mechanical.

In this company, Christina Christian, a 21-year-old from Brooklyn who was the fifth runner-up, came across as downright thrilling. She not only displayed convincing vocal touches on a soulful version of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" but also moved with charm and poise.

Even more winning was Tamyra Gray, a former Miss Atlanta who brought intimacy and fire to the classy Dionne Warwick hit "A House Is Not a Home."

Nikki McKibbin, a Texan with bright red hair and a powerful voice, did her best to inject some fire into "Piece of My Heart," but her version seemed simply moribund next to the classic Janis Joplin rendition.

Next came Justin Guarini, the evening's chief revelation--at least for anyone who found the frizzy-haired 23-year-old insufferably cloying on the TV show. Guarini, the runner-up to Clarkson in the final voting, showed unexpected restraint Tuesday in the opening moments of "Get Here," an engaging Brenda Russell ballad that was a hit for Oleta Adams a decade ago.

Guarini also displayed a far more disarming manner as he introduced Clarkson, who has already parlayed her TV show crown into the nation's biggest-selling single, "Before Your Love."

The crowd was clearly in her corner as she walked on stage to close the opening half of the show. Fans cheered mightily and several held signs in salute. "I Came All the Way from Vegas to See Kelly," read one.

With the all this going for her, Clarkson was curiously underwhelming as she went into a vigorous but undistinctive version of "Respect," one of Aretha Franklin's signature hits. She also moved around the stage uncertainly, showing little of the charisma or poise of Guarini or Gray.

In the spirit of the TV show, many of those seated near me in the audience took advantage of the intermission to informally cast their votes on who did best during the hour--which is a point the tour designers should have recognized.

Why not make each night another contest, allowing fans to cast ballots as they leave the arena? The results could be released city by city or week by week, with a winner announced at the end of the tour.

It would bring some degree of drama to the tour.

My ballot Tuesday would have been Gray, Guarini and Christian, in that order.

After intermission, the performers worked in teams, and this segment was also numbingly predictable. What styles could be safer for medleys by this gang, with its funky, R&B leanings, than Motown and disco?

Besides the predictability, the numbers suffered because the cast's stronger members were dragged down by the weaker ones. Guarini's vitality was especially drained by the guys around him.

In between the medleys, the evening's stars got to do solo numbers again--Guarini offering "For Once in My Life," Clarkson tackling "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman" and McKibbin reprising Stevie Nicks' "Rhiannon (Will You Ever Win)."

Ultimately, the show felt like little more than an amateur production, right down to the the singers' telling us again and again that they had all formed lifelong friendships and how thankful they were to the audience for making their dreams come true.

Yeah, yeah.

I wonder what Simon Cowell would say about that.

*

Robert Hilburn can be reached by e-mail at robert.hilburn@latimes.com.

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