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Reba brings Broadway into her country

I'll say this for country superstar Reba McEntire; she sure knows how to make an entrance.

One look at her stage, and you knew it would be impressive. Gobbling up at least half the floor space in the 10,000-seat Florida Expo Hall Saturday night, the platform served as a basketball court-sized conglomeration of ramps, lights and video screens.

Gliding across the stage, a small taxi stopped in the center and discharged half the members of her band, circus clown-style _ allowing the two guitarists, singer, sax player, violinist and bassist to start playing before their grand dame arrived.

When Reba finally appeared, it was from inside a scaled-down replica of her own Lear jet, descending to the cheers of the near-sold out crowd as the band thundered into the honky tonk groove of Why Haven't I Heard From You.

And so it went for more than 90 minutes, with the flame-haired singer pulling off a mind-boggling string of special effects, pyrotechnics and costume changes, wrapping her soaring brand of countrified pop in an MTV-meets Broadway visual bombast.

For her sensitive ballad on a woman who gets AIDS from a one-night stand, His Name Was John, the singer rose on a platform hidden by a replica of an AIDS quilt bathed in a cascading series of lights before vanishing inside the column.

For her cover of Patti Labelle's On My Own _ originally recorded with fellow country divas Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride and Linda Davis _ McEntire sung with videotaped images of the singers, at least until Davis appeared centerstage to finish the song.

And for her rendition of Aretha Franklin's Respect, the singer shared the spotlight with nine dancers, ending with a flair of poses and pyrotechnics that would have made the Solid Gold dancers proud.

Some have criticized the Oklahoma-born singer for allowing mountains of lights, fog machines, video screens and flashy special effects to overshadow her music. Certainly, when McEntire first made her mark as a sorta-frumpy new traditionalist, one would never have imagined her in anything as glamorous as, say, knee-high skirts.

But, even as Saturday's video screens outlined her gradual metamorphosis from down-home country girl to larger-than-life industry icon (one side-splitting clip showed an '80s-era McEntire explaining to Merv Griffin how she once made dinner from bull testicles), so too has her stage manner grown.

And let's be honest, when considering the soaring bombast in much of her later material _ kind of like '80s-era pop meets old-style country _ this oversized stage presentation seems appropriate.

Countrified hunk Billy Dean opened the show, garnering as much applause for his tight-fitting jeans as his seamless, rock-influenced country pop. Yet another of those artists mining '80s classic rock sounds for new country hits, Dean still cut a fine figure with a skin tight band and impressive singing.

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