KANSAS CITY, MO., FEB. 23 -- Before Bubbles the chimpanzee, before the plastic surgery, before the surgical masks and the oxygen chamber, we knew Michael Jackson as a singer, a songwriter, a dancer, a performer. And on the stage of the Kemper Arena here tonight, that's where Jackson tried to redirect everyone's attention.

He did so with almost two hours of pyrotechnics, special effects, fancy footwork and occasionally stunning music. And if the show too often substituted staged glitz for heart, Jackson did prove that it's as hard to completely resist his music as it is easy to be taken aback by his image.

The Kansas City show was the first stop on the American leg of Jackson's current world tour, his first U.S. concert since the Jacksons' Victory Tour in 1984 -- which also opened in Kansas City -- and his first American concert as a solo artist. It was a crucial moment for a performer who is seeking to return the focus to his music even as many people think of him more in terms of his eccentricities. When he stepped onto the stage tonight in front of 17,000 racially mixed fans, ranging in age from grade schoolers to middle age, Jackson moved the debate to his home turf -- and in doing so he scored a shaky but qualified victory.

Certainly, his moves and poses were frequently dazzling, his singing often fiery and fluent as he powered his way through an up-tempo set consisting of most of his solo hits, plus a brief medley of almost 20-year-old Jackson Five numbers.

Much of the set was familiar to longtime Jackson watchers: His abrupt spins, his moonwalk (he now does a sideways version), the portentous pauses when everyone on stage freezes dramatically, and even the bits that were re-created from the "Thriller," "Beat It" and "The Way You Make Me Feel" videos.

Even the top-secret but highly publicized magic tricks struck a familiar chord. Jackson hired Las Vegas magicians Siegfried and Roy to design illusions, but their creations turned out to be variations on the trick Jackson has been doing on stage since 1981: He disappears from one side of the stage, then reappears on the other.

But the lack of startling new moves wasn't the show's biggest drawback. For much of his set, Jackson struck street-gang poses and strutted up a storm -- but he didn't show the warmth and soul that would have made the evening something truly moving rather than simply dazzling.

At Kemper, Jackson showed off furious virtuosity rather than heart. And yet his technical prowess was indeed awe-inspiring when he lit into edgy, angry and almost claustrophobic new songs like "Smooth Criminal" and "Dirty Diana."

And best of all, he also had a few genuinely touching moments, mostly when he encored with a soaring, undeniably heartfelt version of his gospel-style "Man in the Mirror," but also in such moments as the dance-mime that ended his "Thriller" hit "Human Nature."

Michael Jackson will probably never again astonish viewers the way he did with his first moonwalk on the "Motown 25" TV special in 1983. It may well be that he's lost the ability to dominate pop music the way he did when his "Thriller" album sold 35 million copies. Perhaps his audience thinks it knows too much about his personal quirks to surrender again to his music. And during the most troublesome moments of tonight's show it seemed as if Jackson's time to be more than just another pop star had passed, a victim of his own shortcomings and the nature of the pop marketplace.

But at other times, Jackson showed enough fire, skill and drive to suggest that he may again become a dominant and unifying musical force. The battle, it seems, is far from over; Round 2 -- and, Jackson's advisers hope, a breakthrough moment -- takes place next week, when he sings "Man in the Mirror" at the Grammy Awards.

Certainly he was a hero to tonight's ecstatic crowd, many of whom stood throughout the show, responding deliriously to much of what they saw and heard -- particularly the "Thriller" selections.

The two-day engagement has been a major attraction in Kansas City. Scalpers were asking as much as $200 for tickets, which sold originally for $23. Four years ago, the Victory Tour played three shows to a total of 135,000 people at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium.

Jackson's tour heads to New York City next week. After that, he'll play American dates through early May (Washington is not currently listed among the stops), then spend the summer in Europe. A second U.S. tour is tentatively planned for after Labor Day.