The opening number of the 2009 edition of VH1’s Divas series answered a question that has been nagging at the public consciousness for the last 20 years: What in the world has MC Skat Kat been up to? The animated MC made an appearance in host Paula Abdul’s show-starting medley, as the ousted American Idol judge unleashed an impressively choreographed routine set to her biggest hits, letting everyone know she’s back in business.
This is the show’s 8th year — it launched in 1998, and a five-year gap separated last night’s show from the one previous. While previous lineups tended to span generations, this year’s bill skewed decidedly younger: Kelly Clarkson, Leona Lewis, Jennifer Hudson, Miley Cyrus, Jordin Sparks and Adele. Cheers for Sparks and Cyrus were particularly deafening inside the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Gilman Opera House, and it’s worth noting this year’s show took a crowdsourcing approach to Diva-ism: four of the evening’s six performers ascended to stardom as a result of currying public favor while they were still young hopefuls (Lewis on Britain’s The X Factor; Clarkson, Sparks and Hudson on Idol).
Inside the Opera House, the show ran impeccably smoothly (though long lines at the metal detectors held up attendees at the doors), and the crowd sang along to Lady Gaga’s “Let’s Dance” and Journey’s unstoppable “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” during commercial breaks.
Abdul proved a good sport, gamely referencing her Idol ouster by appearing midway through the show in a cropped blonde wig and oversized suit, playfully miming Ellen DeGeneres’ gait and mannerisms before collapsing in an oversized chair and announcing “What, can’t a girl try out her new job?” She verbally jousted with comic Kathy Griffin and later invited Liza Minelli to the stage, which delighted any members of the audience old enough to remember MC Skat Kat.
The show was neatly bifurcated, its first half showcasing the Divas solo, the second half given over to a series of duets. And while each of the performers shone on their own (particularly Adele, whose gently pleading rendition of her haunting “Hometown Glory” was as gripping as a good ghost story) it was the second half of the show that caught fire.
Most of the vocalists were paired with singers who either complemented or contrasted their styles. Cyndi Lauper’s impassioned rasp undercut Leona Lewis’s smooth croon on a sweetly underplayed “True Colors”; Martina McBride brought out Jordin Sparks’s country side on “Broken Wing,” while Sparks made McBride sound effortlessly R&B. Adele and India.Arie’s rich altos were so similar it was often tough to tell them apart.
Jennifer Hudson and Stevie Wonder coaxed one another to astonishing performances on “All in Love is Fair,” both of them starting small and then steadily somersaulting up to impossible high notes, matching each other run for run, vibrato for vibrato (attendees jumped to their feet as Hudson nailed her impossibly epic last note). And Cyrus’s surprisingly sturdy handling of “If It Makes You Happy” with Sheryl Crow proved her an able rock vocalist, even if the line “I still get stoned” sounded a bit funny coming from her 17-year-old mouth. Earlier, she bopped her way through her electro-pop scorcher “Party in the USA.”
The evening’s final electric moment went to Clarkson, though, who teamed with Melissa Etheridge for a searing run through Etheridge’s “Bring Me Some Water.” The pair made for the most unconventional kind of divas — both generally favor gruff rock rasps to endless melisma and both pull off an unlikely combination of down-home charm and tough-as-nails tenacity that runs contrary to industry-standard diva prissiness. Together, they were all spirit and fire, a scorching close to the evening.