- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 8, 2004

The official title of the triple-bill tour package Wednesday night at the MCI Center was Ladies First, but there were plenty of seconds for the gentlemen.

And thirds and fourths and fifths, ad infi-skin-tight-‘em.

For starters, there was rapper Missy Elliott cavorting with a battery of stripper-dancers wriggling around a metal pole; the second round saw Alicia Keys, spread atop a grand piano and tinkling the keyboard as if it were a breakfast tray on a king-size bed; and headliner Beyonce rump-shook in a two-piece number of glittering gold.

Each performer was afforded flashy stage props that included bursts of flames, curtains that were fashioned after royal mosquito nets and various video-screen displays.

No one lip-synced, but, all told, there must’ve been a village’s worth of musicians playing Wednesday, the first of a staggered two-night stop that continues Sunday night. These weren’t your traditional jazz or rock combos.

They were the kinds of bands with too many keyboard players, two laptops and a guitar player that you can never hear. They’re pros, but they don’t play with each other so much as they garnish a script of tape accompaniment and a dancing troupe hitting its marks.

Beyonce’s beau, Jay-Z, dropped by for a showstopping 30 seconds during a roof-tearing rendition of “Crazy in Love.”

The four-hour revue at MCI — give or take 30-minute intervals for set changes — was brought to us by a certain telephone communications company, but it may as well have been sponsored by the producers of “Showgirls.” Canadian R&B; comer Tamia was there and gone in a 15-minute promotional flash. Miss Elliott and crew followed for a proper, and very raunchy, opening set. The bad-girl rapper tore through numbers such as “Get Ur Freak On” and “Pass that Dutch.” The highlight of her set was an energetic lap around the arena floor.

The stunt would be topped. Miss Knowles was transported through the audience on a canopied, pope-worthy sedan-bed and plucked lovingly by male consorts onto the stage.

Ladies First wasn’t all leg and thigh and haute couture. Almost, but not quite.

Miss Keys threatened a degree of pop refinement as the PA blared Phil Collins music for her arrival. The classically trained pianist briefly succumbed to the demands of Ladies First fashions and tried lamely to keep up with the rubbery Rockettes for the hip-shaking “Karma,” “Heartburn” and “Rock Wit U.” The gal can play sonatas, but that doesn’t mean she can dance.

Then she sat down on her piano bench for “A Woman’s Worth.” The hot air and the bump ‘n’ grind stopped. From there, Miss Keys pretty much outclassed the competition. The arena became a piano bar.

“How Come You Don’t Call Me,” “Never Felt This Way,” “If I Ain’t Got You,” “Slow Down” — Miss Keys played these alone on piano and sang with a guttural, sultry soul fire that had ladies holding up their cellular phones for remote listening.

At one point, Miss Keys stood on a steel travel case that doubled as a conductor’s pedestal. Baton in hand, she led her band through an orchestral funk jam.

More solo piano, please.

Miss Knowles tried to recover the girl-power gauntlet with a speech about how the gals needed to love themselves before they can truly love their men. Then she sort of sullied the message with “Naughty Girl” (reggae-rapper Sean Paul was prominent on tape) and “Baby Boy.” She was only a bit player in the high gloss of “Hip Hop Star,” but she home-ran with a scorching turn on the R&B; ballad “Speechless.” It may just have been the surprise of it all, but guest Jay-Z elicited the biggest cheer of the night.

Like a proper gentleman, Jay-Z waited until all three ladies were through the door before entering himself. How boorish of him, though, to steal the show.

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