Early in her Universal Amphitheatre show Tuesday night, Cyndi Lauper was nearing the end of her heartfelt "Boy Blue" when she suddenly shattered the ballad form with a jaw-dropping series of intense, high-pitched wails that virtually wrestled her to the floor, where she became a flailing pile of emotion.

Moments like that--when her real rivals seemed more in the league of a Piaf than a Madonna--were hard to match the rest of the way, but Lauper had unmistakably let you know that you'd better pay attention. Anything might happen.

The fact that not too much did--at least not on that level--was a letdown, but though she hasn't solved her problems as a live performer in the three years since her first L.A. concerts, she's found ways to compensate.

That initial go-round, when Lauper burst onto the scene as a daffy diva in a swirl of petticoats and flaming hair and the liberating declaration that "girls just want to have fun," was like a giddy infatuation, and it was easy to embrace her eccentricity without especially worrying whether there was a lot of musical substance behind the clown princess image.

Now, the relationship has reached its next stage, so to speak, and it turns out that the music might have been her real strength all along. At Tuesday's show, the question was why she lets her image--or her need to convey one through her chatter--get in the way of her increasingly distinctive music.

Her look this time was a little, well, darker than that of the old new-wave Gypsy. In fact, she brought to mind a deranged suburban housewife wandering the streets wearing too much makeup, her hair a mess, her blue velvet party dress falling off. Things lightened up a bit when she stripped down to an old-fashioned black corset.

Lauper might have toned down the freak-show aspects of her persona, but she still gets lost in aimless between-song talk. The quirky, Gracie Allen patter is OK in small doses, but at the amphitheater, she kept lapsing into strident, rambling monologues.

A little along those lines is fine--if she didn't establish an essence that ties together all her diverse musical threads, she'd just be a bland vehicle for the songs. But she could get the job done in fewer words--probably in just a few gestures.

The result Tuesday was a lack of momentum that drained the atmosphere of the excitement it should have had. What it really obscured was her development as a potential musical force. The contrast between hard rockers like "She Bop" and "Money Changes Everything" and ballads like "True Colors" exemplified her range, which is roughly equivalent to that of the physiques of two Lauper cronies: Hulk Hogan and Pee-wee Herman.

She handled those styles--and several in between--with equal authority. She's also expanding her role as a songwriter, and when she puts her mind to it her voice is astounding--probably the only female in pop who can match it for power, bravado and nuance would be Maria McKee. What a duet that would be! Hey girls, want to have fun?

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