Dec 16 2014

A Diva and a Holiday, Intertwined

(The New York Times)

Mariah Carey wished, she said from the Beacon Theater stage on Monday night, that she could show everyone in the room how she does Christmas at home, in her personal life. “You need to know that I have a 10-foot tree,” she said, standing in front of a 10-foot tree. “And real reindeer,” she added. “Yes, real reindeer.”

The reindeer that galloped out onstage just after she said this weren’t real, just barefoot humans in brown fur suits with antlers tied around their chins. But was that really any less madcap or ornate a celebration?

Few singers scream out more for their own Las Vegas revue than Ms. Carey, who has the vocal talent, the rabid fan base and the mildly irregular showmanship required for such a venture.

But she was in New York, so for an hour or so on Monday, she turned the Beacon Theater stage into her own personal Vegas in a holiday-themed concert, the first of a six-show run.

Ms. Carey loves herself some Christmas and is as close as pop music has to an official voice of the holiday. She has two Christmas albums — the excellent multi-platinum “Merry Christmas,” from 1994, and the worthy 2010 follow-up, “Merry Christmas II You” — and one bona fide modern holiday classic song, “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” The holidays are a time for ambition and grandeur, pomp and camp, cheese and glitter, and this show was all of those things. Ms. Carey sang on a stage that was a red, silver and green reverie, with that tree, oversize snowflakes hanging from the ceiling, and a band dressed all in white. She was also bolstered at every turn — by irrepressibly cute child dancers, by grown-up dancers who looked uncomfortable moving in their outfits (a couple of the men were tasked with repeatedly escorting her to and from the stage), by backup singers and, in places, a full choir.

That’s a lot of distraction, and it was possible to think that perhaps it was an implicit response to the unkind recent stretch she’s had. A couple of weeks ago, an isolated vocal track of her performance at the lighting of the tree in Rockefeller Center was leaked, and it’s a difficult listen — she’s off pitch at times, and comes nowhere near the high notes she’s known for. Depending on your perspective, it reveals a great performer in hopeless decline, or an under-rehearsed performer hoping to get by, hidden by all the ceremony around her.

Maybe that was on her mind at the Beacon because vocally, in general, she erred on the side of caution. Ms. Carey is the sort of singer to pause before a big moment, draw attention to the moment, deliver the moment, let it drop, then repeat the routine again a few seconds later. But sometimes here that came at the price of fluid songs — she dumped a bunch of runs at the end of “Silent Night,” bringing that slow song to a standstill. And at times, she was completely undersinging, as on “Christmas Time Is in the Air Again.”

But she also showed engagement, choosing her runs carefully, holding back in unexpected places and sometimes, as on “Joy to the World,” emerging powerful and precise. And a couple of times, she paused and delivered the dog whistle notes she’s known for (and is one of the few pop vocalists capable of singing), though maybe they weren’t as piercing as they were a decade ago.

In some ways, though, Ms. Carey is comfortable letting those frayed seams show. She rambled here and there about technical mishaps — twice, the receiver for her in-ear monitors had to be reattached to her dress. (“It’s not his fault,” she said of the techie dispatched to fix it, “it’s the sweat.”) Once, she scurried to the side of the stage, where a handler applied a towel to her face, wiping off sweat. (In other ways, she wanted to preserve her facade: Burly security guards paced the aisles, giving menacing looks and shining flashlights at people trying to take pictures.)

Ms. Carey started one song over midway because of a technical mishap: “Hero,” the 1993 ballad that was the night’s only song not on holiday message. It was close enough to the theme, she said, though she also griped, “It’s so schmaltzy.”

But what schmaltz. This was her most vivid, most secure and most connected singing of the night, a full delivery of a song rather than a half-complete outline. Ms. Carey has always been flexible as a singer, acclimating herself to hip-hop as it came to colonize R&B. But ballads — which require vocal power, a sense of fantasy and colossal ego — are her home, and she was utterly at ease here. On a night designed for Christmas fantasy, it was a firm and certain gift.

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