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Review: Jennifer Hudson and Robin Thicke at Nokia Theatre

May 3, 2009 |  9:27 pm

On her first tour, the 'Dreamgirls' star's undeniable voice overshadows missteps, but the falsetto-loving co-headliner offers a stronger show.


Jennifer Hudson and Robin Thicke shared a few things Saturday night at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live: a band, a semiformal approach to fashion and, of course, an audience. Bringing their national tour to the city where Thicke grew up the son of entertainers and Hudson became an "American Idol" finalist and movie star, the pair proved complementary though the less ostentatiously talented Thicke threatened to outshine his young queen of a co-headliner, offering a stronger show if not as many out-of-the-park high notes.

With this tour, Hudson's first and the most prominent for Thicke, both rising stars hope to establish themselves as mainstays of hot adult R&B. That's the realm of royalty like Patti LaBelle, Lionel Richie and the late Luther Vandross, musicians whose fans still prefer albums to ringtones and are willing to pay the baby-sitter to go to concerts with their spouses. Thicke and Hudson, both of whom have a knack for old-fashioned showbiz, fit in well there.

Saturday night's concert was an event. Long lines for cocktails were populated by women in curve-hugging finery like the sequined miniskirt ensemble Hudson wore onstage and men looking casually fine in get-ups like Thicke's Members Only style jacket and designer jeans. This crowd was here not to admire hot dance moves while tolerating vocals sung to a backing track but to have a powerful and singular experience.

Hudson sought to fulfill this mandate with giant ballads, a few sassy moments that played on her youth and earthy sense of humor, and fancy guest stars, including Chaka Khan, Philip Bailey and Verdine White of Earth, Wind and Fire and Raphael Saadiq. (Khan joined Hudson in a rendition of her own "Sweet Thing"; the gentlemen callers stood by while Hudson sang "Happy Birthday" to her manager and gave him a cake.)

Hudson didn't quite attain her goal; her set was too short and strangely disjointed, as if she were checking items off a to-do list rather than building an emotional arc. But there were enough high points to please her growing flock.

Hudson has the kind of voice that pop fans treat like a national monument, wondering at its size and pristine beauty. Her show began with that voice, unencumbered by visuals. Behind a curtain, Hudson began "One Night Only," a song that helped her win an Academy Award as Effie in the feature film adaptation of the musical "Dreamgirls." It was an entrance Streisand would have admired and Hudson's former castmate, Beyoncé, would have envied.

From there, though, Hudson got a little lost. "You Pulled Me Through," the Diane Warren-penned blockbuster that could become Hudson's signature song -- given how well it describes the singer's healing process after her mother and two other relatives were slain last year -- came too soon and lost drama because of that. The hits medley that featured Khan was rather abrupt, like an "Idol" segment. And inexplicably, Hudson chose Mac Davis' "I Believe in Music" for a feel-good sing-along, causing an interactive moment that felt more like a soda commercial than a morning in church.

Still, that undeniable voice overshadowed these missteps. When Hudson (who is reportedly pregnant and did seem a little tired) sat on a step and sang a cappella with her backing singers, her elegant melodic sense was breathtaking. Her radio hits, "Spotlight" and the sassy "Pocketbook," reminded everyone that she can fit into contemporary styles, but when she returned for the encore everyone needed, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from "Dreamgirls," it was that old-Hollywood "unforgettable moment" that offered the satisfaction her fans were seeking.

Hudson did have a tough task in following Thicke, who satisfied from start to finish. The falsetto-loving crooner is the kind of subtle talent who builds a significant following over the years, and his convivial Robin performances aptly demonstrated how he's doing it.

Many of those acolytes are women. "Take your time, baby, take your time," shouted one as Thicke got mildly nasty with his microphone stand during the steamy "Teach U A Lesson"; she was one of a sizable contingent of adult women happily reverting to teen-style screaming in response to Thicke's swaying hips and light, lithe tenor. Thicke was careful, however, to not just play to the ladies. He prefaced his carnal love songs with a little couples counseling, advocating sensual pleasure as a balm for economic and personal insecurity.

Thicke is not a belter, and he's learned to use his breathy upper register to his best advantage, stressing introspection and intimacy on shimmery ballads like "I Need Love" and his biggest hit, "Lost Without You." On more up-tempo numbers, he took advantage of his rapport with the band, which included a great little horn section, a lively drummer and support on keyboards and occasional rapping from musical director Larry Cox.

Effortlessly shifting from bedroom meditations to party numbers like the Latin-tinged "Everything I Can't Have" and socially conscious testimonials like "Dream World," which he dedicated to President Obama, Thicke gave a lesson in pacing that Hudson would do well to heed. His versatility felt natural, and though his singing was sometimes a little ragged, he never showed himself struggling. He wasn't aiming to astound the audience; he just wanted them to have fun. Focusing on that, Thicke ended up stealing the show.

--Ann Powers

Photos: Jennifer Hudson (top) and Robin Thicke perform.  Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times