Mariah's Entrances

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 9, 2006

Mariah Carey is not the most kinetic of live performers. The pop diva with the glass-shattering voice doesn't really dance, and she doesn't race around the stage -- preferring to take dainty, deliberate steps in her designer stilettos. And who can blame her? It can't be easy keeping your balance on heels so high that they look like knitting needles.

Mostly, then, the movement is limited to Carey's vocal acrobatics -- and there were plenty during her concert at Verizon Center on Thursday. Though she's been showing off a more breathy style in recent years, Carey still has a propensity for taking off on runs that sound like a boiling teakettle with perfect pitch.

"Dreamlover" even opened with Carey playing the role of wailing soul, as she unleashed a series of piercing, whistle-register notes before swooping back down to alto- and soprano-range normalcy. (The song also had her playing another role, for which she wore spangly black undies and a matching bra, a chiffon boudoir robe scarcely covering her back. Later adding sunglasses to the outfit, she resembled an incognito Frederick's of Hollywood model.)

Still, Carey somehow managed to cover quite a bit of ground during the show. Of course, most of it was the ground leading backstage, but who's counting? Oh, right: Us!

Carey exited stage right a half-dozen times during her 90-minute concert, sometimes for just a minute or two but also for lengthier periods that usually signaled a costume change. (Total outfit count: five.) Some of the breaks dragged on long enough for a deejay to spin parts of at least two dozen hit rap and R&B records as a hype man barked about taking it back (Bell Biv Devoe's "Poison"), waaaaay back (Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' ").

The frequent strolls backstage repeatedly derailed the concert's momentum, which was a shame since Carey was in such fine voice; no longer an emotionless vocal technician, she even sounded like a credibly gritty soul singer during an inspired reading of her first hit, 1990's "Vision of Love." Ultimately, though, the walk-offs did her in: When Carey left the stage, yet again, after a powerhouse performance of her soaring (if saccharine) ballad "Hero," the crowd cheered briefly, then turned nearly silent -- not realizing that it was time to call Carey back for an encore.

It took flashing stage lights to prompt the audience, and eventually Carey returned to sing "We Belong Together," the biggest hit from her enormously successful comeback CD, "The Emancipation of Mimi."

One of the best-selling titles of 2005, the album reestablished Carey, 36, as a bona fide hitmaker after a series of artistic misfires and a very public meltdown. Thus, this is very much a triumphal tour. The show opens with a video of Carey saying that if whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger, then, well, gosh, she's really strong -- apparently to the point that she can even turn references to her failures into symbolic celebrations. The concert here closed with two confetti guns spraying the crowd with . . . glitter! "Glitter," of course, being the title of Carey's semi-autobiographical movie and an accompanying album, both of which were tremendous, potentially career-killing flops.

Carey didn't exactly gloat about her return to A-list status, however, and she never fully indulged her inner diva. Not even when the stage lights came back up prematurely between songs while the star was dabbing her glistening face with a tissue. "You caught me," she said with a giggle. If anything, Carey seemed charmingly awkward, coming across as a regular gal blessed with an exceptional voice. She may have 17 No. 1 singles, but she's still just Mariah from the block. Or, as it were: Mimi from the block, as she performed 2005's "Shake It Off" in front of Broadway lights that spelled out her alter ego's name.

The song married a pop vocal to a hip-hop beat -- a formula Carey first started using more than a decade ago on hits including "Fantasy." She performed that tune here as a virtual duet with the late rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard, who rather creepily delivered his vocal from the grave. Several living rappers also appeared via canned studio tracks, including Jay-Z on "Heartbreaker," as Carey loaded the set with hip-hop-infused material.

But she didn't exactly ignore the ballads and, in fact, the highlight of the show was a fiery cover of "I'll Be There," the Jackson 5 tune that Carey originally recorded 14 years ago during a live MTV special. The song was performed as a duet with one of Carey's backup singers, Trey Lorenz, who spent most of the show seated on a stool at the back of the split-level stage. He couldn't sit still for the entire show, however: Lorenz disappeared backstage before the song, precisely so that he might make a dramatic entrance moments later. Mariah's kind of move, without the high heels.

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