Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony at the United Center, 2007

By Mark Guarino

As an actress, Jennifer Lopez transcends the multiplex screen. As a model, she transcends the magazine photo spread. As a singer, she transcends the video.

But as a live performer who needs to reach every seat in a major sports stadium, Lopez’s natural gifts diminish, her limitations bared. Surprisingly, eight years after her debut album, it is a medium of which she remains a relative newcomer. Her first-ever concert tour stopped at the United Center Sunday, where she presented quite a paradox: the nervous jitters of a first-time performer and the larger-than-life personality of a major star.

Even though she was the headliner, Lopez was onstage briefly: her hour-long, 11-song set was preceded and followed by the appearance of her husband, the singer Marc Anthony. Her set was split four ways, the flavor of each signaled by what she wore. A flowery cape and bellbottoms equaled sassy R&B, black knee-high boots and crucifix necklaces equaled Rock en Espanol, gold frills and microphone headset equaled techno, and a matronly gown equaled prim and proper duets with her husband.

At least half the time she struggled. Her magnetism, so easily captured by a photographer’s lens, translated to nervous giggling, slight dance moves and flubbed lyrics. During the set’s slice of techno — featuring her biggest hits like “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” and “Let’s Get Loud” — she joined her dancers in slick choreography, but the sexiness of the big beats were better served by the montage of her old videos. screened just seconds earlier. It was as if she was eight years late to her own party; this time around, the routine, straight out of the Britney Spears 2001 playbook, looked fatigued.

Lopez, 38, fared better in a more adult role: The gritty funk of Rock en Espanol songs like “Que Hiciste” or the hard funk of “Hold It, Don’t Drop It.” Having aced the art of strutting while singing, Lopez proved a believable rock singer. On the rock ballad “Porque Te Marchas,” she struck a pose straight out of a Bob Seger video: On her knees in front of a video of racing storm clouds. Lopez compensated for the narrow range of her voice by acting emotionally raw — It worked.

Despite being the first to perform, Anthony played a lengthier set of mostly Latin pop and salsa, backed by a 15-member band. He lacked the star power of his wife but proved he was the stronger singer and a more electrifying performer. Except for his English pop hits “I Need to Know” and “You Sang to Me,” it was a high-energy set of salsa music including “Mi Gente,” a cover of a song by salsa pioneer Hector Lavoe who Anthony recently played in a film.

The evening’s high point came late, with two show-ending duets: “Por Arriesgarnos” and “No Me Ames.” Maybe because the tabloids are reporting that Lopez is pregnant with twins or maybe because people just like to see married couples singing love songs to each other, but their performance tore down the house. Playing no role but herself, Lopez sounded her most genuine. Rarely do shows start at the encore, but this one did.

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