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Live review: Ann Powers on Beyoncé*

July 12, 2009 |  3:00 pm

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Two news items chased Beyoncé into the Honda Center in Anaheim on Saturday, when she finally brought her latest world tour to the Southland after four months on the road. One had the singer earning the top spot on Forbes magazine’s “young rich list,” as the highest-earning celebrity under age 30. The other, more gossipy, story involved a rumor that she has banned photographers from shooting her from certain angles during her show, because she sweats too much.

Those tidbits – one about Beyoncé’s unique glamor and the other about a common, earthy foible – better summed up the inner divide she’s been exploring in her work than did the frenzied pizzaz of the concert itself.

That’s not to fault the production: It’s fairly astounding, as both showbiz and an athletic event. For more than two hours, Beyoncé led her large dance troupe and all-female big band (a concept to which she’s remained loyal for two tours now) through many compulsory arena pop routines and several she herself has invented.

She somersaulted while suspended in a harness. Thrilling! She sang Happy Birthday to a 2-year-old. Adorable! She let the crowd take over while singing “Irreplaceable.” Fun! She got on her knees and mourned Michael Jackson. Poignant! She hit most of her notes too, though sometimes slipping badly in her lower register. And she danced like only Beyoncé can dance, with a combination of power, grace and smarts that fully unites Broadway choreography with urban street innovations.

The only thing not fully realized was the show’s overarching theme. As in the album this tour supports, “I Am … Sasha Fierce,” Beyoncé meant to represent herself as a split personality, tender and open on the one hand, indomitable and rather scary on the other.

But she has chosen the wrong dichotomy to represent herself. Since she’s such a superb competitor, she might have done better with the one that preoccupies gymnasts: the difference between technical and creative genius, between nailing every element of your craft and turning that craft into an art. Or, to connect it to those news flashes previously mentioned and place it in the theatrical realm, the need to deliver both a great physical performance and one that moves the audience emotionally.

The love of the game is one of Beyoncé’s great motivators. Like Jay Z, the rapper she wed, she loves to battle, and this show constantly referenced and topped the work of other pop heroines.

“Ladies, I’m all about female empowerment,” she announced at one point, sending the crowd into squeals of recognition. Indeed, her production can be seen as a retelling of pop’s history from a feminine viewpoint – and as an argument for Beyoncé as the ultimate realization of the female pop dream.

She took on young does, big sisters and mother figures alike. The reggae interlude in “Baby Boy” reached toward Rihanna, while the crunk dancing and leather wear of “If I Were a Boy” was very Ciara.

Within the show’s overarching science fiction motifs, Beyoncé did the robot better than Lady Gaga.

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She sang snippets of songs by Alanis Morissette, Donna Summer, and Sarah McLachlan, and cribbed one famous line from Janet Jackson. The segment of the show celebrating her movie roles focused on her depiction of Etta James in “Cadillac Records” and of a character based on Diana Ross in “Dreamgirls.”

And touches of the influence of Beyoncé’s two idols -- Tina Turner and Barbra Streisand -- were everywhere.

She even dared to directly challenge pop’s ultimate alpha female, Madonna. During “Ave Maria,” a ballad that uses religious imagery to elevate a romantic connection (rather, well, “like a prayer”), Beyoncé went from wearing a 1940s-style white swimsuit to having some troupe members attach an elaborate skirt and veil that made her look like she was wearing an unearthly wedding dress.

Do you remember who wore a wedding dress onstage during the MTV Video Awards in 1984? Beyoncé does.

Every triumph of form and style in her performance underlined the central message of Beyoncé’s music: that self-reliance and self-love provide the only means of survival in a tough world. Many of her hits – including her biggest, like “Single Ladies” and “Irreplaceable” – urge women to reclaim themselves after a man has cheated on them with another woman. Others, like “Freakum Dress,” celebrate showing off.

Solidarity among women is good, Beyoncé’s act says, but it serves the larger project of improving one’s own strengths. This sentiment was mirrored in the stage production: Surrounded by outrageously gifted female musicians and dancers (plus a few male ones, mostly in the background), Beyoncé almost always held the central spotlight, not so much interacting as leading by example.

It’s interesting to note that Beyoncé’s career began within a girl group, Destiny’s Child, in which she was also the main focus. In a way, everything she’s done since has extended from that traditional girl-group model, in which the voice of a top girl is amplified by a few much-loved but always lesser sisters.

Beyoncé did share the spotlight briefly with her backup singers, the charming and voluptuous Mamas, and a few band members, including the bassist MC Divinity Roxx and the guitarist Bibi McGill. Her dancers got their turn too, mostly during their leader’s costume changes.

Of course, there’s no incongruity in a superstar – even one who preaches sisterhood – commanding center stage. And in Beyoncé’s form of womanism, everyone is advanced when one woman hits her personal best.

-- Ann Powers

Update: An earlier version of this post mistakenly stated the concert took place on Friday instead of Saturday. Also, the name of the song "If I Were a Boy" was incorrectly titled as "When I Was a Boy."

Photos: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

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