Alicia Keys may have named her headlining tour after her second, multiplatinum J Records album, “The Diary of Alicia Keys,” but the impressively mounted show that pulled into the Kodak Theater Wednesday (for the first of two perfs) had more in common with a book of dreams. Show is presented as an evening out in 1931 at the “Uptown Saturday Night” club, a kind of Cotton Club fantasia. The emcee (Dave “Sugarfoot” Watson, who also plays sax) jokes about Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, and the curtains open on an all-white stage — curtains, grand piano and the band’s suits, a chandelier twinkling above. The only splashes of color come from the giant posters announcing perfs by Calloway and Keys (done up as Billie Holliday) and the Tiffany lamp set beside one keyboard.
Keys enters looking right at home in the glamorous setting, in a white pantsuit and a feathered headdress, leading the band in a stunningly reworked version of “Karma.” The vocal line is absolutely contemporary, but the arrangement, with its punchy horn parts and stride bass, is right out of jump jazz.
The conceit is not carried out throughout the two-hour show, although she continues to straddle eras and styles. The jittery “Rock Wit U” is straight out of James Brown. “Heartburn,” the Timbaland-produced high point of the album, turns into a smoldering cross between Martha Reeves (the “burning in my heart” tag on every chorus) and Diana Ross, as she’s flanked by two gesticulating backup singers. Her cover of Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Anymore?” sounds like early Aretha.
But the evening’s most impressive music returns to the 1930s theme: A medley of Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” with “Girlfriend” and “My Boo,” her duet with Usher; a version of Holliday’s “Good Morning Heartbreak.” Another medley –Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” with her “You Don’t Even Know My Name”–didn’t work as well: It’s cluttered and clunky.
You can’t fault Keys’ ambition, but she’s trying to do too many things at once. Still, it’s hard to resist the evening’s finale, with Keys standing next to her piano, her arms raised in triumph, on the platform rising to the rafters, looking like the final shot of an MGM musical.
Opening act John Legend is more impressive in this setting than he was opening up for Kanye West last month. Standing up behind his keyboard, he’s a more assured presence onstage, singing with freedom and ease. He may introduce “She Don’t Have to Know” claiming that women are the craftier sex, but he’s a master of indirection. He may sing “We can take it slow” on “Ordinary People,” but his hooded eyes are perpetually at half-mast, and the song’s sinuous groove lets you know slow is a relative term.
Keys and Legend play Gotham’s Radio City Music Hall for three nights, April 20, 22 and 23.