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Don Omar takes reggaeton higher

October 28, 2006|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

In reggaeton, as in rap, performers have a macho compulsion to outdo each other, usually with faster, smoother and wittier rhymes. But by any standard, singer Don Omar earned top bragging rights Thursday at the Gibson Amphitheatre with a sensational show that was part Broadway musical, part born-again revival and part Latino party singalong.

This dazzling performance even eclipsed Daddy Yankee, another handsome and charismatic Afro-Puerto Rican, who recently appeared in concert on a huge throne to underscore his self-proclaimed title as king of reggaeton. With his hit "Gasolina," Yankee has managed to keep his second-place rival in his exhaust -- until now.

It's no coincidence that Omar, long the prince of reggaeton, named his latest album "King of Kings." It's a smart and powerful work that gave Thursday's show both its main concept and content. But peel away the bravado and you discover Omar's true message, one of uplifting spirituality and determination inspired by, as he put it, "the real king of kings."

What? Religion and family values in a reggaeton act?

Yes, plus some outstanding dancing in a field known for its raunchy club move called El Perreo, or Doggy Dance, which is little more than simulated sex standing up.

Don Omar put together a company of 16 skilled dancers for this tour, many with Broadway experience, under the imaginative direction of co-choreographers and co-directors Maria Torres and Paul Becker. The result is a sort of reggaeton ballet, with elaborate moves that draw from hip-hop, salsa, classical, acrobatics and the martial arts. (One dancer slides amazingly across the floor on his head at one point, and others glide around with wheels on their heels.) Omar's company proved with sheer talent that reggaeton can be sexy without being cheap and lurid.

By setting a higher dance standard, Don Omar is also ridding reggaeton of its raunchy, sexist nature. He's sending a message that the human body, especially female, doesn't have to be crudely objectified to be admired. It can be elevated to an art form if trained to move in ways beyond pelvic thrusts.

Although he started performing at a young age and served as backup singer for the seminal reggaeton duo Hector and Tito, William Omar Landron has made only two studio recordings as Don Omar. "The Last Don," from 2003, yielded some catchy but typical reggaeton hits, such as "Dale Don Dale" and "Dile (Otra Noche)." But it is his latest album, produced by keyboardist and deejay Eliel, that has set him above the pack, breaking away from the genre's tired party themes and its assembly-line sound.

The varied repertoire gave Omar the opportunity to show off his versatility in his sold-out concert, which was scheduled for a second night Friday. It has three distinct segments -- an opening theatrical sequence with an apocalyptic theme, a middle, more intimate part, and a fun-filled finale with all the reggaeton favorites.

Don Omar adds to the spectacle with stunning wardrobe changes. He first appears in futuristic body armor for a doomsday piece set after a world war, with dancers in mohawk hairdos and outfits like a cross between "The Flintstones" and "Barbarella." The singer, sporting cornrows, then leads a hip-hop militia in the commanding "Reportense," or report for duty.

Don Omar later emerges in a white suit with a full-length, hooded cape for his fire-and-brimstone sermon, "Predica" (Preach). Backed only by Eliel on piano and Alexis Figueroa on violin, he then shows his vulnerable side on the longing "Vuelve" (Come Back), the cautionary "Infieles" (The Unfaithful) and the moving "Angelito" (Little Angel), a morality tale on the dangers of AIDS.

The show eventually had its comic relief. Near the end, Don Omar engaged in a duet -- and simulated fight over a woman -- with the lead singer of Aventura, the popular bachata group that was the opening act. When the star extends his hand to make amends, his rival asks, "Should I shake his hand even though he stole my woman?" The crowd wildly cheers its approval and the two artists embrace.

The show's final reggaeton segment was preceded by news clips from Puerto Rican television recapping Don Omar's recent legal problems when police mistakenly linked him to drug traffickers. The incident, and the artist's bristling defense of his reputation reflected in a satirical editing of the news montage, provided a perfect backdrop for the return to reggaeton -- with the singer in gangsta outfit.

"Back to reality," announced Don Omar, even though his bold vision actually takes this music back to the future.

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