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Review: 'N Sync On Overblown Odyssey

It is a visual overload, this PopOdyssey tour starring the reigning champs of the pop music marketplace, ‘N Sync.

There are films and explosions and dancers and mechanical bulls and more costumes than songs – it looks exhausting for performer and young viewer alike. It’s a feast of production values, a sign that every dime went into something the audience can see and, taken collectively, the show is a better marketing tool than a dozen videos. PopOdyssey is flat-out a vehicle to expose new songs to their hard-core audience and give a dynamic and visceral association to the bulk of the music on new album “Celebrity.”

Nine of the 13 songs that appear on “Celebrity” (Jive) are included in the PopOdyssey show, which has 15 U.S. shows on the docket until it closes Sept. 7 at New York’s Madison Square Garden. By that time, “Celebrity,” which was released Tuesday, probably will have sold more than 5 million copies and a third single from the disc will be primed for airplay. Teen pop may be showing signs of an imminent death; ‘N Sync, on the other hand, is the healthiest band going, regardless of genre.

The concert works in vignettes, taking each song and associating with it images that are inflated to the point where ambiguity is vanquished. The band members are pictured on the three giant video screens in emotional extremes – wild and sexy for one song, tender-hearted or even goofy on the next two and in solo and group settings to make the girls swoon.

Cameras for the first half of the 90-minute extravaganza are squarely focused on JC Chasez, the singer who blossoms the most on “Celebrity” and has begun to show signs that he will have a performing career once he’s no longer part of the ‘N crowd. Second half is almost all Justin Timberlake, the heartthrob who does a fine job in the band’s faux silent movie (“There Once Was a Flower”) during “Gone,” arguably the band’s strongest ballad in its three-album career.

“Gone” and its black-and-white video accompaniment was a most welcome calming respite from the big bangs of the music and videos that preceded it. Following a worthless video on the band’s history – something even the 8-year-olds on hand could recite verbatim – ‘N Sync opened with “Pop,” the single released a month ago, and its energy alone makes it an attention-getter, never mind the supplemental shenanigans. The band members rose from inside a midfield stage that was connected to the mainstage with a lengthy ramp; within the song’s three-minute running time, they had altered their clothing three times, moved to the mainstage, shared moves with female dancers, shown performance segs on video and excited the crowd with a few pyrotechnics.

Variations on the theme continued with mechanical bulls for “Space Cowboy,” a battleship ramp that fed into overhead suspension wires used to move the Syncers from one stage to the other on “The Two of Us” and a videogame motif for “The Game is Over” that merged animation, video and costuming at an absurd level of dead-on interpretation of a lyric. As well as the prerecorded video and the live shots were blended, camera positioning needs to be rethought on the secondary shot, as nearly every image from that station was of the young men’s backs. Not good.

Grand as it all is, there is no cohesiveness to this effort. Each song has its own envelope and it seems many fans will have trouble digesting all the audiovisual information on offer. Late in the concert, ‘N Sync dragged out green laser lights to enhance the stage show, the same effect Michael Jackson used more than a dozen years ago on his “Bad” tour. Used alone by Jackson, they were confusing; here they have a bit of a background effect, maybe making a quiet statement to show how far production values have come since 1988’s version of pop.

Regardless of what pop era they’re in, though, ‘N Sync is a record company’s dream: An act that sees its record sales potential coincide with its live-draw apex, a feat that’s been approached lately only by Backstreet Boys and Dave Matthews Band.

But this show eventually takes that commercial possibility too far. Samantha Mumba, the only one of the string of opening acts who may be more than a one-hit wonder, ended her 15-minute set with “Baby Come Over” and a shot of her album on the video screen. In the half-hour between Mumba and ‘N Sync, the screens displayed a Britney Spears video, a Verizon Wireless ad, a trailer for Lance Bass’ film and other assorted detritus. Live “entertainment” consisted of KIIS DJs who are far too aware that saying the words ‘N Sync will elicit ear-splitting shrieks.

In short, PopOdyssey is one long encouragement to spend, spend, spend. On one hand it’s commendable that ‘N Sync favors material that many in the crowd heard for the first time Tuesday, but how much of that music can stand on its own? Beyond “Pop” and “Gone,” ‘N Sync is stuck straddling the fence of hip-hop and pop, trying out some of the syncopated rhythms that Destiny’s Child has employed over and over, and then reverting to the boy-band staple, the overwrought ballad. “Selfish” and “Something Like You” are so-so songs, as is “The Game Is Over.” For the folks who see the show, though, they each have their own disguise to make them seem that much better when the CD is playing.

Presented by Verizon and KIIS. Band: Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, Chris Kirkpatrick, Joey Fatone, Lance Bass; Tray Antunes, Bill Ashbaugh, David Cook, Paul Howards, Greg Howe, Ruben Ruiz, Juan Sepulveda; musical director, Kevin Antunes. Reviewed July 24, 2001.

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