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Tiny Alicia Keys has skills to fill big arena

Alicia Keys appears in a cage to start her “Freedom Tour” in the St. Pete Times Forum Sunday.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Alicia Keys appears in a cage to start her “Freedom Tour” in the St. Pete Times Forum Sunday.

TAMPA — Alicia Keys is tiny. Really tiny. The stage is big. Really big.

It's worrisome to watch any solo artist perform at the mammoth St. Pete Times Forum, especially one like Keys, who climbed to glory on the raw power of her pipes and piano, not pyrotechnics and pizzazz. So you couldn't blame a person for feeling a little nervous — motherly, even — for Keys on this big night. Could she pull it off?

Her chiseled, serious face appeared on a screen, as if to say we should chill.

"They told me I wasn't strong enough," she said. "But I am mighty."

And then, haters, Alicia Keys came on stage locked in a cage, wearing skintight silver glitter pants and spiked heels, slinking around the clink like a caffeinated convict. She grabbed the bars. She bent the (fake) steel. She busted free.

Keys' "Freedom Tour" stop in Tampa Sunday didn't have the acrobatic circus of a Britney Spears show or the bethonged psychosis of a Lady Gaga spectacle, but it wasn't coffeehouse fare, either.

She thrilled the small crowd of 7,375 grown folks early, belting out a juiced rendition of You Don't Know My Name, and her very first hit, Fallin. Thrusting and sexy and flanked by backup dancers wearing militant Sgt. Pepper jackets, Keys was confident, her voice pristine through the heavy backing beats.

It wasn't long, though, before we got classic Keys — piano tuned, lights low, voice pure. Pray for Forgiveness and Diary had subtle, soft nuance, enough to make you close your eyes and drift off to a happy place for a few. Alone on a foggy stage, Keys sang Un-thinkable (I'm Ready) off her new album, the Element of Freedom.

The stage … it was getting big.

She knew it, too. It was time to pick it up again, to add a dash of glitter. Keys brandished the most amazing keytar in the history of keytars, a shiny beauty shaped like an antique key. She shredded it. Then she changed into a white gown, moved back to the crystal encrusted baby grand and kept up the pace (kind of) with sing-along favorites If I Ain't Got You and Superwoman.

By the time she got to perky shouter No One, the crowd was back in the game, clapping hands high in the air. She closed with Empire State of Mind, a big radio smash with Jay-Z. You couldn't help but wish he was there to carry it home a little harder.

Soul singer Robin Thicke (yes, his dad is Jason Seaver from Growing Pains) opened the show, another solo act on a mission to fill the arena with heat. Seriously, there were mad pheromones going on. Couples were one breath away from making out. Thicke relished it and canvassed the stage with his smirk and swagger, helping prove the theory of the night — if you have the skills, size doesn't matter.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Tiny Alicia Keys has skills to fill big arena 03/29/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 29, 2010 9:25am]

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