As it stands now, Mariah Carey’s show begs for either simplicity or coherency. Her first song, “Emotions,” begins with Carey rising from beneath the floor, dressed simply in jeans — belt-area cut off, of course — and a glittery silver top — backless, natch — and she gets the focus placed squarely on performance, singer and song. As the opener gave way to “My All” from the “Butterfly” album, Carey began a string of ballads that would eventually put tremendous weight on the pacing of the show, a negative mark made all the worse by staging that lacked focus or purpose and did little to serve her talent as a singer.
Music, with a few exceptions, is consistently moved to the background of the show in favor of a peculiar mix of video, dance and sets. She lets certain songs stand on their own merits, such as “Always Be My Baby,” which is performed early when the show is still trying to find its bearings, and “Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Song),” which is plopped in a half-hour stretch of ballads that feels like 30 minutes of the same song repeated over and over.
Midway through the show she turns attention to one of her backup singers, Trey Lorenz, who handles the role of 98 Degrees on “Thank God I’ve Found You,” her recent No. 1 single. The song is annoyingly formulaic, from the huge, reverb-heavy chorus to a clicking rhythm track that’s slightly off the beat and a lyric that expresses an overwhelming sense of gratitude that the protagonist has found a lover.
Carey’s musical brilliance has been her ability to stay ever-so-slightly ahead of the teen beat curve, incorporating her childhood opera training, dance rhythms and hip-hop touches to her pop music in crisp fashion before her peers jump on the bandwagon. “Thank God” is an example of what happens when an artist attempts to play catch-up, in this case it’s with the Backstreet Boys and their ilk; it’s the weakest moment on her otherwise strong 1999 album “Rainbow.”
Visually, the Carey show is a mess. Revamped from the Europe and Asia presentations, Carey is left with a bizarre mish-mosh of sets to wander through.
Evening opens with a film — much of which was shot at this year’s NATPE conference in New Orleans — of celebrity testimonials regarding Carey’s standing with regards to arch rival Bianca. Before the fourth number, “Heartbreaker,” a boxing ring is assembled onstage as Don King is seen on-screen pumping up a Carey-Bianca bout. After they duke it out, the concert’s subplot fizzles with little fanfare.
Virtually every song is framed with dancers, props and set pieces yet few feel complete in their vision and often, the enormous vertical screen behind the stage steals from the action rather than amplifies it.
And no one is more aware of the screen than Carey, who closes every song with an enormous smile that’s magnified 20 times over by the camera. For the opening of “Petals,” however, she forced out a tear, which in turn made her smile — the girl was obviously pleased she can cry on cue.
Nothing could top the bizarreness, though, of bringing two live sheep onstage. She referred to it as an inside joke, but then followed up by trying to mike one of them bleating — an off-the-wall move matched by having several youngsters come onstage. Not to do anything mind you, just to get a tip on how to sit when wearing Carey-inspired torn jeans.
Those onstage “guests” got more spotlight treatment than her eight dancers did on many of the tunes, as they were relegated to the back of the enormous stage. On occasion they came forward but only once did they interact — and that was to close the two-hour show in a sailor motif as she performed “Honey.” While it may be straight from a Vegas showroom blueprint, the number had an energy of its own and seemingly that’s Carey’s ambition — make each number stand as isolated vignettes. Her mistake is thinking that none of the 17 songs performed needed a connection to one another.
“I just wander around aimlessly,” she said after singing “Honey,” seemingly unaware of how accurately she was describing her between-song meandering that’s in definite need of scripting. At one point, nothing was more important than finding glasses for her “champagne toast,” two words she must have repeated eight times.
An improvised rap with guest Krazie Bone and opening act Da Brat demonstrated a degree of openness to improvisation, but left to her own druthers, Carey exhibits no control of pacing.
Carey’s ability to translate the success of her albums — her nine discs have sold more than 50 million copies in United States, more than 120 million worldwide — onto the stage has yet to extend beyond her ability to sing the living daylights out of her material.
In her favor, however, is the fact that she doesn’t rely exclusively on her video image, and she sings her songs of emotional longing free of sexual undertones, making her a wholesome entertainer for the pre-college crowd filling the bulk of the Staples Center seats. Similarly, her eight outfits were well thought out, nothing trampy and only the boxing trunks campy.