New York Daily News Review: Divas Live '99...

'Divas '99' Wages Battle of Big Mouths Wailing singers come off loud and clear, with mixed results

Divas don't have to play by the rules. Anyone who doubts it could've tuned in VH1's "Divas Live '99," cablecast live from the Beacon Theater on Tuesday, when 10 big-mouthed singers seemed locked in a battle to see who could get away with the most.

Cher put in an early bid by insisting on lip-syncing her biggest hit, "Believe." Elton John upped the ante by muscling in two songs no one wanted to hear from his ailing musical "Aida." Young Brandy showed true diva potential by blithely using her squeak of a voice as if it was equal to the high-decibel competition. But Whitney Houston threatened to trump them all by condescendingly calling husband Bobby a "diva in training," and dragging her daughter onstage to chirp "Sing it, mommy."

Such moments at least gave "Divas Live '99" some perverse zip — its music could barely muster any. To be fair, the 2 1/2-hour event split into two distinct shows that set wildly different tones. The more successful first hour centered on Tina Turner, Cher and Elton, embracing the goofiest aspects of Diva-dom. The other 90 minutes stressed the maudlin ballads that mar so much modern female pop. (The latter approach dominated last year's show, with prime offenders Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Gloria Estefan).

This year's fest started promisingly enough. From Tina Turner's leggy opening of "Simply the Best" to her snarky duet with Elton on "The Bitch is Back" to her face-off with Cher on "Proud Mary," the show seemed like a drag queen's dream come true. Cher sang "If I Could Turn Back Time" live with such force that you wondered why she followed it with something taped. Even so, her mere presence had camp charisma, turning the night's early segment into the equivalent of a glitzy '70s variety show.

Given VH1's retro bent, it's no wonder the show was better in the nostalgia-oriented first part than in the more-contemporary second. The latter got off to a particularly shaky start with Brandy's wheeze of a voice. For some reason, she found herself paired with Faith Hill on the drippy Bryan Adams ballad "Everything I Do." Every time Brandy tried to feign rapport by reaching over to touch Hill, the country singer acted like she'd just been goosed by the class nerd.

Although LeAnn Rimes barely registered with two dreary ballads, at least Houston's oversinging shook the place awake. She chewed even more scenery in the quiet parts of "I Will Always Love You" than in the shrieky ones. But her vocals represented the worst aspects of the diva, providing the musical equivalent to an Olympic javelin throw. She even upstaged final guest Chaka Khan on "I Am Every Woman," if only because Khan seemed so disinterested in singing her own song.

Oh, well. Maybe this show wasn't meant to be judged on its music, but on things like the outfit worn by "presenter" Ashley Judd, which made her look like an unappetizing piece of toffee. Ultimately, we should treat this more like an awards show, with prizes given to those displaying the most diva-like traits: self-involvement, drama and gall.



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