Offering up a lengthy and engrossing song-and-dance spectacle that delivers on every level, Janet Jackson and her creative team have neatly organized three-dozen of her songs into 10 blocks, using tonality as connective tissue that brings together past and present. It’s a marathon — two hours, 20 minutes — but the arc the material creates is so strong in design and execution that it hints at a jukebox musical; add a feeble book about love lost and regained and she’s probably ready for Broadway.
After years, decades even, of mono-thematic concerts, Jackson has broken through with a compartmentalized show that delivers a bit of everything, from her teen hits (“Young Love,” “Say You Do”) up through six songs that appear on her current Island Records release, “Discipline.” In her past concerts the overwhelming emphasis has been on the current material — join my army, come to bed, she has asked since her identity-sealing breakthrough 22 years ago — but this Rock Witchu tour reflects her assimilation of 25 years of recording styles.
Success of Jackson’s show hinges on a strategy few performers ever attempt: She’s eliminated the visual presence of a band and centered all interplay on the dancers. Jackson employs wide catwalks on either side of the stage that run 15 rows deep into the arena. A runway parallel to the stage connects the two, and Jackson and her nine dancers use all the floor space to service the presentation; Jackson does a great job keeping up with the hoofers close to half her age and gives a few of them a chance to spotlight special talents. (One break dancer’s interlude is particularly breathtaking.)
The three musicians, for the record, are in the stands and seen only late in the night, when the cameras catch the drummer for the two onstage bigscreens. Raps and a Dave Navarro guitar solo on “Black Cat” are pre-recorded; the overall sound was muddy and imprecise.
Not counting the encore of recent single “Luv” and “Runaway,” the music is arranged into 10 blocks of three or four songs each with costumes and choreography — which concentrates on hips, joints, athleticism and unity — that change with each block. Evening opens with a block comprising three tunes from 1986’s “Control” — “Pleasure Principle,” a hint of the title track and half of “What Have You Done for Me Lately” — and feeds into the first single from “Discipline,” “Feedback,” one tune segueing to the next.
One block focused on hits from her teen years; another played up rock elements; a particularly strong one ventured into hip-hop; and a set of “Funny,” “Anytime, Anyplace” and “Discipline” was theatrical sexuality played under impressive control. All worked and established the necessary connections — musical, presentational and, especially, with the fans.
The merging of material, much of it trimmed, has an odd effect: “Escapade,” a chart-topper in 1990, is cut short just as it feels like it will be a showstopper a bit more than halfway into the show; “I Get Lonely,” the single that hit No. 3 10 years ago, is smartly placed at the end of a hip-hop string, and Jackson exposes a rarely seen vulnerability, her voice revealing elements of emotional longing not heard elsewhere.
The voice, famously thin and often manipulated on record, was sufficiently effective — a bit girlish on “So Much Betta,” Diana Ross-like on “Together Again” and startlingly full-bodied on “Let’s Wait Awhile” and “Again.” With Jackson having long employed pre-recorded instruments and voices, one can’t help but try to detect what’s live and what is a studio effort. Even at close range it was impossible to make the call.
By now, the crowd is aware that Janet will pull an audience member onstage for a dominatrix routine during “Discipline,” a steamy bit that gets the audience’s blood pumping. The audience is given a breather as she and the bound victim lower into the stage at the song’s conclusion, but her return is a bit too high energy; it seems like everyone is in the mood to savor the moment, and if anything should be changed, it would be a flip-flop of the final block (“Black Cat”/”If”/”Rhythm Nation”) with the encores. The main body of the show would have a softer landing, and the encore would end with the audience craving more.
Jackson’s tour — L.A. was the third date — stops Oct. 16 at Madison Square Garden and Oct. 17 at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J.