By Mark Guarino
Justin Timberlake toasted himself with a bar shot Monday in the early moments of the first of a two-night stand at the Allstate Arena.
Why not? Last time he was in this venue it was a co-headlining bill with Christina Aguilera, a remnant from his Mouseketeer past, a history he’s doing an effective job in eviscerating. Unlike his boy band veterans in ‘N Sync and a certain cueball ex proven to be a public fruit loop, Timberlake is enjoying serious creditability, the kind that happens when you star in an art house movie, guest with the Flaming Lips onstage, receive positive reviews from hipper-than-thou media outlets like Pitchfork and parody yourself on “Saturday Night Live” by drawing attention to what’s inside a certain box. And that was just last year.
Timberlake is today a pop star of his own right. His liquid-smooth dance moves, boyish charm, natty wardrobe and naughty innuendos cast a wide net. Whereas in a not-so-recent past he was aimed at every pre-teen bored with Raffi, now he suits about everyone else, regardless of race, creed, gender, age or jean size.
Justin’s trajectory is rising all right. Just check out the production. He joined a platoon of dancers (10), singers (four) and musicians (seven) who danced, sang and played on an island situated in the middle of the arena’s floor. Whoever designed this ugly contraption should have their sketchpad revoked. Featuring miniature stages positioned to please different audience vantage points, it followed no symmetry and instead — with all those people scrambling everywhere — looked like rush hour at Union Station.
Worse were the few haphazard scrims that rose and fell intermittingly, sometimes boxing Timberlake and players in, sometimes not. These were grade school musical choices on a blockbuster budget.
Timberlake earned the constant stream of screams as he tends to be so likable in about everything he attempts, whether it is playing a melody of soft ballads at a piano or with a guitar or strapping on and joining in what could possibly have been the first-ever three-man keytar summit.
He suffers, not from star power, but from lackluster material. Much of the lightweight R&B from his two very successful albums (including the recent 2.5-million seller “FutureSex/LoveSounds”) exist as bad vamps, strung out long enough for Timberlake to walk from one end of the clunky island to the other side, injecting falsetto twirls when called for. The show opened, blurring together the title song with “Like I Love You” and “My Love,” together indistinguishable because they were trimmed to accommodate the dance breaks.
While sexual healing of songs like “Until the End of Time” was effective due to his natural gift for the high register, it also came to life because the rest of the show settled down. Otherwise, when followed by uptempo drama — “What Goes Around” — the music dissipated into strutting beats just to help Timberlake walk around and be seen.
Any energy built was quickly extinguished thanks to a very long half-hour intermission featuring Timberlake producer Timbaland who sat and spun through hits ranging from Michael Jackson to Kelly Clarkson. And yes, by the end, he had a solo album to promote and yes, it features a cameo by the star of the night, a sneaky injection of marketing that brought down the whole enterprise.