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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Still a Riddle After All the Hits : Houston a Mix of Magic, Mundane in Forum Show

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TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Either Whitney Houston is getting to be a better singer--or a better actress.

For much of her still young career, the critical line on the would-be queen of American pop music is that she is a superbly gifted singer who, unfortunately, doesn’t possess much vision in the design of her music or much soulful character in the execution of it.

What other pop superstar’s music reflects so little personal stamp? There’s a reason a talented but also somewhat hollow newcomer such as Mariah Carey is often compared with Houston rather than a compelling stylist such as Aretha Franklin.

There were moments, however, on Thursday night at the Forum when Houston broke through the bland and seemed to inject emotion and fire into some ballads, most notably the torchlike “All the Man That I Need.”

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Or was it an illusion?

How can someone exhibit such stirring musical instincts on one or two numbers then spend the rest of her almost two hours on stage on mostly pedestrian versions of either overwrought ballads--all the way up to and including “Greatest Love of All”--or such mediocre up-tempo material as “My Name Is Not Susan.”

Is it just that on the key numbers Houston--who is scheduled to make her film acting debut soon--has studied other great singers and simply tried to approximate them?

Or was the striking version of “All the Man That I Need” a hint of a coming artistic breakthrough?

And can’t she see the difference between her own effectiveness on that song and the rather anonymous quality of most of her efforts in the show?

Questions.

Questions.

Questions.

In some ways, Houston--after six years of stardom--remains the ultimate pop riddle.

Evaluating her reminds you of the old story about two thirsty people looking at a glass of water and one being happy because it is half full and the other being depressed because it is half empty.

For most of the near-capacity crowd Thursday, the glass must have appeared half full and they drank freely from it--generous with their applause, if not especially moved to get up and dance despite the seductive grooves supplied by the solid, seven-piece band.

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Still, the gap between Houston’s performance and her potential made it seem more realistic to think of the glass as half empty.

First, there’s the design of the show.

Everything about the opening promised Flashy Big Deal: something you’d expect from Madonna, Janet Jackson, David Bowie or the Pet Shop Boys.

There were so many crisscrossing search lights that you didn’t know if you were at a Hollywood premiere or a remake of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” You half expected the Forum roof to open and Houston to arrive by helicopter.

So it seemed kinda silly when she just walked on stage in a glittery silver top and black satin pants, almost lost among the 15 musicians, backup singers and dancers.

In fact, she seemed lost for much of the evening--either leaving the stage to change costumes (the other outfits ranged from torn jeans to a cocktail gown) or fading into the background for uninspired dance steps during the more frantic numbers.

At times, the show reminded you just what pop music might be like today if there had never been the rock ‘n’ roll or soul music revolutions in the ‘50s and ‘60s. There is a somewhat cool professionalism at work, but little sense of genuine passion or challenge.

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The idea seems to be dazzle the audience with a bit of everything--including a rapper, whose only purpose was to add hipness.

An alternative would be intimate production that forces Houston to better define her musical identity. The down-to-earth presentation might also give the audience a better glimpse of her personality, which is hidden in this revue format.

To be a great artist, you’ve got to define what is special about your talent. By the end of the Forum show, you simply had no idea of what it is in Houston’s music that really matters to her. The lingering question of the evening is whether even she knows.

Houston--who was scheduled to appear Friday night at the Pacific Amphitheatre--is joined on this tour by After 7, the male trio whose best-selling album reflects some strong vocal tension, but whose performance Thursday seemed a stiff combination of Motown-style choreography and classy, but faceless R&B; tales of being under the spell of love.

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