Straight up, Paula Abdul illuminates the Reno night

Shaun Astor / Tahoe Onstage

Paula Abdul seized the crowd in the Reno Ballroom on Nov. 4.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Shaun Astor

Maybe it could be attributed to the layout of the Reno Ballroom, entirely seated, forcing those who wanted to dance to have to stand up in the walking aisles. Or maybe it was the flow of the performance, with the stage typically going dark between songs, allowing for the shuffling of dancers and stage sets, but adding a start-and-stop quality to the overall pace. Or maybe it was just the Daylight Saving time change that had occurred earlier in the day, making the Sunday night start time feel a little bit later than the 8 p.m. that the clocks displayed.

Whatever the cause, it felt as if Paula Abdul’s Reno performance was headed in an unfortunate mild direction.

That is until about a third of the way into her set, when she began performing the single from her Spellbound album, “The Promise of a New Day,” to a darkened room before the spotlight came on and illuminated the singer at the back of the room walking through the aisle, her short figure almost unassuming when taken off of the stage.

Once the crowd realized it was Abdul walking slowly through the audience, singing into her headset while embracing fans fortunate enough to have aisle seats, concertgoers were immediately on their feet, or standing on chairs. And the moment was palpable, where the night went from simply being a staged performance to being an event.

Having a prominent history with music, dance and television, maybe it should have been expected that Paula Abdul’s first headlining music tour in decades ultimately would be much more than that. Over the course of the night, Paula entertained with a troupe of dancers, a stage-sized video screen that she interacted with throughout the night, audience participation, and more than one occasion of her professing her gratitude toward her fans before climbing into the crowd to perform from throughout the room.

More than a concert performance, the production took on the feel of a career retrospective. With Paula – both live and onscreen, often the two interacting with each other in playful script – walking the crowd through her story. Beginning with her account of breaking through multiple cuts at tryouts to eventually make the Los Angeles Lakers’ cheerleading squad, to being tapped to choreograph other performers’ music videos, to an emergency plane landing that would lead to years of painful physical rehabilitation, to her big comeback as a judge on American Idol, Paula both soliloquized and ran video narrative, leading up to the current, and her catalog of songs from across her three albums.

Her storytelling was playful, recalling her time as a cheerleader sharing a two-bedroom apartment with four other dancers, or offering an example of her wildly nonlinear dreams from which she pulled the inspiration for what would become some of her well-known choreography sequences. And once she had the crowd on their feet, the night was all hers after that.

Reworkings of songs, most notably “Cold Hearted,” kept the music feeling fresh, although she made no attempt to hide references to all things ’80s, whether that be laughingly encouraging the crowd to do certain dance moves that definitely fell out of popularity decades ago or asking fans who had seen her play before.

Ending with her biggest hits, “Straight Up,”and “Forever Your Girl,” Abdul seized the crowd, while projection screen flashed, her dancers ran the stage, and she circled the floor dancing with everyone who was up and out of their seats.

Whatever the reason for the slow start, Paula did exactly what she explained she had done throughout her career: persevered. And when it was all over, she stepped out of the spotlight and left a room full of people with ecstatic smiles on their faces. Decades after getting her start as a 17 year old at a cheerleading tryout, it seems that initial glow that set her apart from an auditioning group of 2,000 girls is still there.

— Shaun Astor

Related story: Straight talk from Paula Abdul.

About Shaun Astor

Shaun Astor cites pop music singers and social deviants as being among his strongest influences. His vices include vegan baking, riding a bicycle unreasonable distances and fixating on places and ideas that make up the subject of the sentence, "But that’s impossible…" He splits his time between Reno and a hammock perched from ghost town building foundations. Check out his work at www.raisethestakeseditions.com

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