Aretha Outshines Cast at Divas Show

While VH1's yearly Divas Live concerts have become an important franchise, while also providing solid revenue for the channel's noble Save the Music charity, the show itself has now moved so far afield from its original intent, it's tough to know what to make of it.

Last night's disjointed evening from Radio City Music Hall in New York was further proof that producers ought to take this concept back to its roots, scrap it altogether, or at least rename it.

Though worthy honoree Aretha Franklin was in terrific vocal form (when is she not?), the rest was little more than a kitchen-sink mish-mash of conflicting promo agendas and rag-tag hosting that had almost nothing to do with the show's now-meaningless title.

Predictably, the Queen of Soul wiped the floor with this year's crop of instant "divas" dispatched to flutter around her — nowhere more obviously than during the show's "Freeway of Love" finale, when overrated singers such as Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, and a trio of wayward Backstreet Boys all but disappeared in her wake, much as they had all evening.

Only an unbilled Stevie Wonder, who sneaked onstage in the final moments, held his own during the number. Why he wasn't an integral part of the evening, which is rebroadcast tonight at 8 p.m. and throughout the month, is unclear.

Instead, producers left Blige and Scott to salute Franklin with her hits "Day Dreaming" and "Natural Woman," respectively. At least they fared better than Salsa vet Celia Cruz, Marc Anthony, and emerging singer-songwriter Nelly Furtado, who seemed to have dropped in from Saturn for their incongruous segments.

Other than a dead-on spoof of "We Are the World" from the cast of Saturday Night Live, the highlights were Franklin's alone, as she traversed pop, rock, jazz, gospel, R&B, and even opera, pulling out Puccini's "Nessun Dorma," as she did at the '98 Grammys. There was also the requisite "Respect;" a brilliant, fast-paced "Think;" and a blithe jazz set with Herbie Hancock, Clark Terry, Roy Haynes, and other great old-timers.

While she's done the opera bit better in past performances, it didn't diminish her point: No one is as bodacious a showboat in so many genres. Of course, that's what makes casting around her so difficult. Experienced performers with less than stellar grooves know to stay clear. Janet Jackson showed her showbiz smarts by choosing a speaking role last night.

Back in '98, when VH1 first premiered Divas Live, the premise was something of a throwback to TV's bygone variety era — a time when the record labels allowed their biggest stars to interact during musical numbers that really were special.

Even if all the women on the '98 show (Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, and Franklin) weren't quite deserving of the diva honorarium, they were at least famous enough to make an interesting evening.

It seemed that would also be the case at Divas '99, when VH1 put old pals Elton John, Tina Turner, and Cher on one stage — all survivors of various downturns, tumultuous relationships, and the kind of late-in-life rebounds that make for legitimate diva-hood. But then, in what appeared to be an 11th-hour bow to advertisers, producers tacked on a gaggle of young no-names, and the premise was gone.

VH1 execs say they've also had to stray from the original format (as they did with last year's odd salute to Diana Ross), because getting four or five female superstars together year after year has proven tougher than anticipated.

Really? Granted, fielding a dream quartet of Madonna, Barbra Streisand, Tina, and Aretha may indeed be impossible — but it's hard to imagine that rock and R&B treasures like Gladys Knight, Stevie Nicks, Carly Simon, Roberta Flack, Ann Wilson, Dolly Parton, Bette Midler, Jennifer Holliday, Joni Mitchell, Chrissie Hynde, Patti LaBelle, Debbie Harry, Bonnie Raitt, and other women of long-running accomplishment are all so busy these days that at least some of them, (alongside a choice smattering of truly deserving younger talent) could not be harmoniously assembled for an evening that does the show's title some justice.