Reba McEntire brings schmaltz -- and real talent -- to S.J. Arena

Published: Nov. 25, 1994

WE visited Reba World on Wednesday night. Or rather, we should say Reba World visited us. We think there was a concert there somewhere -- amid the dry-ice fog, the laser lights, the skits, the production numbers, the videos and the film clips. We'll get to the concert part soon, but first the really important stuff -- the Reba World Atmospheric Index for the San Jose Arena:

Number of gratuitous, heart-tugging film and video clips: 5.

Number of costume changes: 7.

Number of mechanized stage devices rarely seen outside Vegas showrooms: 5.

Number of certified, warm-and-fuzzy Hallmark Moments: too many to count.

Humidity at the center of Reba World, as measured on the emotional soppiness meter: Bring a bucket and a mop.

Reba McEntire was once a country singer. She is now the ruler of a multi- faceted entertainment empire that makes its own rules and sets its own boundaries. These days, she has careers in aviation, publishing, television, advertising and film -- and on-stage she's about as country as Sandra Bernhard. Her 100-minute, 19-song show before a full house at the Arena was a love-fest carried out with all the precision of a military maneuver.

The 39-year-old, Oklahoma-bred diva is very much in danger of becoming to country what Diana Ross is to R&B -- more of a regal presence to be worshiped than a working entertainer. Like Ross, she has made over-packaging into an art form.

The show began with a full-size film screen draped in front of the stage. A jetliner screams across the screen, and suddenly we're looking fondly back on Reba's childhood, her home movies, her big break at the rodeo, her feature film debut. And . . . finally, there she is, clomping down the big Busby Berkeley stairs on the stage in a pair of white go-go boots, singing "Respect," flanked by three of her nine dancers and an eight-piece band.

The little gestures and asides are the places where even disciplined artists usually tip their hand, letting the crowd know how they're really feeling. But Wednesday those touches -- from the folksy patter to the playful shtick with the video cameraman -- were canned and choreographed.

Musically, the majority of McEntire's current material (the album "Read My Mind" is her 22nd) is all but indistinguishable from over-orchestrated, synthesizer-driven middle-of-road pop. It is treacly, mawkish, plodding -- and utterly forgettable -- fare. (The one true country ballad of the night, the starkly rendered semi-acoustic "They Asked About You," whipped by in a flash, sandwiched between skits, videos and dance routines.)

The facile he-done-her-wrong homilies and pious morality tales are tailored for indiscriminating tastes. But there is a reason McEntire has sold more than 20 million albums that has little to do with song selection and production values:

McEntire, a scrappy, outspoken former rodeo rider, is a self-made millionaire many times over. She and her body of work represent something terribly important to women of a certain socioeconomic background: self- determination. The one song of the entire evening that really boomed with righteous conviction was "Is There Life Out There" -- the story of a determined blue-collar mom who goes back to school to find a bigger, brighter future. It would be a grave error to dismiss McEntire's appeal as phony. The don't-mess-with-the-sisters message may be dolled up in 17 layers of Vegas schmaltz, but it is very real.

Vocally, McEntire has still got a lot of grit and growl in her. Producer Tony Brown hasn't been able to bleach the "honk" out of this country girl. Her range is not great, but her judicious phrasing and careful arrangements would never give that away. Oh, to be able to hear her voice up against one or two acoustic guitars -- period. The real shame in the Reba World treatment is she doesn't need it.

Overall, the strongest numbers of the night were: "Why Haven't I Heard From You?" a whimsical piece of swing-band boogie off the current album; "Take It Back," another up-tempo raver from "It's Your Call"; and "Is There Life Out There?" Between those high points came some shamelessly manipulative moves so brazen as to make the ghost of P.T. Barnum up and weep: We saw Vince Gill -- in a Marine officer's uniform, no less, via video. We heard paeans to the everlasting love of moms, dads, apple pie and . . . We think you get the picture, and we see no need to run down the whole tired laundry list of props, from the feather headdresses to the magician's trap- door box.

''Fancy," the big production encore, was a jazzed-up version of the same one she did in 1991. The story-song of a mother who turns out her own daughter as a hooker ended with McEntire climbing into a mechanized balcony cage suspended on cables and soaring over the Arena floor. As she floated back to earth, I was waiting for her to give the flying-V salute to her adoring subjects. But copping a pose from "Evita" would have been a bit much. After all, an artist's gotta draw the line somewhere, right?

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