The most thought-provoking moment of Diana Krall's performance Saturday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts came at the end, when the singer cranked up a 78 rpm disc on an old record player before leaving the stage.
As she prepared to set the needle, several audience members ignored an earlier request by the venue to put cellphones away and stood to record the moment. Considering that the show leaned heavily on music and film from nearly a century ago, it was poignant to imagine the day when iPhones become antiquated too — and the footage captured on those devices becomes a relic from a bygone time preserving an artifact from a time even older.
That moment, however unintentional, made a deft transition from the Jazz Age to modern times. Unfortunately, it wasn't the only time the performance seemed torn between two worlds. Often, the program felt like a pair of wildly different shows — one a carefully coordinated multimedia presentation, the other an informal sit-down with a headliner willing to improvise — that competed for space on a single stage.
The concept for Krall's "Glad Rag Doll" tour, which supports her 2012 album of pop and jazz covers, is brilliant on the surface. Krall and her five-piece band performed most of the songs under projected video clips from the silent era, and the stage, which featured two layers of star-spangled curtains and a similarly illuminated crescent moon on the side, seemed to have been lifted straight from vaudeville.
The show's most elaborate number was its first, a video presentation in which Krall dueted with actor Steve Buscemi, decked out in a black suit and derby, on the 1920s standard "When the Curtain Comes Down." Buscemi, recently famous for playing a Prohibition-era rogue on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," dug into the song with relish, and as an opener, the number promised an evening in which the aural and visual components would play tightly off each other.
Much of the time, though, the performance took a far looser approach — the kind that might inspire a title like "An Evening with Diana Krall," with the singer joking, chatting with the crowd and alternating songs with rambling anecdotes. A show like that can be delightful, but the combination of the ornate format and Krall's relaxed demeanor meant that the Segerstrom performance constantly struggled to find a flow.
At times, the performance felt better suited for a small bar or even the singer's living room, as stories about Krall's son being disciplined for swearing at school or her aunt playing piano in her underwear might have gone well over beer and chips. When Krall began a solo portion in the middle by asking the audience to shout out song requests, she appeared to be taking the show less seriously than the elaborate staging implied.
The music itself was superb throughout the night, with Stuart Duncan's hyperactive fiddle and Karriem Riggins' agile drumming standing out from Krall's crack ensemble. The singer's deadpan delivery perfectly suited the steely melancholy of Bob Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate," one of the few post-Depression tunes in the set list, and the band's intense playing helped turn the 1924 "Let It Rain" into a soulful rave-up.
Less successful, though, were the film clips that accompanied most of the material. Occasionally, the images on screen complemented the tune, as with the bouncy "You Know — I Know, Ev'rything's Made for Love," set to a scene of Groucho Marx wooing Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers' "Animal Crackers" (actually not a silent film, but serviceable with the sound off). "Glad Rag Doll," which laments the objectification of young women, was made more poignant with stills of Hollywood starlets.
Other times, the images felt disconnected from the music. The somber "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" featured an elegant clip of a couple dancing when a moody street montage might have underlined the lyrics better, and this scene, like others, simply played repetitively for minutes on end. The redundancy of the footage would have been a smaller problem if the films weren't so prominent, but with the actors on screen dwarfing Krall and her band in size, they amounted to a center-stage act rather than wallpaper.
It's true that, with cinema having passed its 100th birthday, seeing such artifacts on the big screen at all is a blessing. No doubt a few people remember attending films in the early silent era — and buying songs like "Glad Rag Doll" when the 78s were fresh on the rack — but for the most part, we can only guess how astonishing those moving images and scratchy recorded voices were to their first audiences.
In that regard, the stage design of Krall's show at Segerstrom, with twinkling stars and a moon surrounding the players, served as a metaphor for the dreamland those old chestnuts must once have been. That spell was easy to glimpse at times on Saturday, but ultimately too hard to sustain.