SHEFFIELD — In 2010, two years before her death, Whitney Houston took to the stage for the Nothing but Love World Tour, which served to promote her seventh album as well as the beginning of a general comeback. While the 38-city trek brought in $36 million in ticket sales, according to PollStar, it was still deemed a flop. Critics lambasted her for her hoarseness and fans departed as she coughed between and during songs. The world could only allow themselves a flawless and unharmed vision of Whitney.
At An Evening With Whitney: The Whitney Houston Hologram Tour, which opened here on Tuesday evening, that’s exactly what they got. Fans paid upwards of 93 dollars (and an optional 25 dollars extra for a show program) to see Houston projected onto a screen, courtesy of a military-grade digital laser, and the cutting-edge technology of VFX company Base Hologram, which recently treated Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly to a similar kind of resurrection. While those shows received middling sales, Whitney’s could be the company’s greatest success so far. “They understand how important it is to produce a phenomenal hologram,” Pat Houston, Whitney’s sister-in-law and CEO of the Whitney E. Houston estate said of Base Hologram in a press release. “They also know that engaging her fans with an authentic Whitney experience would resonate worldwide because of the iconic status that she created over three decades.”
But the atmosphere and audience dynamic on a hologram tour is obviously different than one you’d usually find at a live show. The agonizing anticipation of a pre-curtain call — knowing that a huge presence is about to share the same space with you; wondering what they’re doing in their dressing room until then — is gone. In Houston’s case, particularly in the latter part of her career, that sense of anxiety before her live sets was heightened. As her voice threatened to strain, it felt like coming to see a once-confident tightrope walker who’d lost their balance. On this tour, there’s no chance of a fall, nor is there any relief in the not-falling. The focal point of danger has shifted; the onus is now on the technology. The audience isn’t here to be reduced to a hushed awe, they’re here to sing and dance and recover the smiling, unpained vision of Whitney they have crystallized in their memories.
When Houston’s hologram first showed up onstage at Sheffield City Hall, she looked golden, like a vision of a memory. Gone were any signs of age, wear, or deterioration. She opened with a cover of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” the previously unreleased track that was sampled by Kygo for the producer’s 2019 hit single. But despite the hologram’s three-dimensional technology, this was a 2D duplicate of Whitney in every other sense. While Houston appeared in a few different costumes, and covered the hits from her debut (“How Will I Know?,” “Saving All My Love For You”) up to her movie days (“I Have Nothing”) in a doggerel, non-chronological order — one audience member told her to “get on with it” when the hologram assured it would cover the Bodyguard fanbase — this Whitney never aged past her straight-haired My Love Is Your Love era.
Though the show’s audio is lifted from previously digitally remastered recordings, Houston was accompanied by a live band and real backup dancers (as choreographed by Fatima Robinson, who previously worked with Whitney). But that only made the hologram seem more flat in comparison. Some clever tricks, including pouring rain and her toying around with the real-life microphone stand helped to temporarily suspend disbelief. Yet this could never be mistaken for a live Whitney Houston show. With tacky and outdated graphics — blue smoke, clouds, thunder, flames — the design and production value was more befitting of a cruise ship singer than one of the greatest performers of all time.
While the hologram has some of the visual cues of Houston — flailing her handkerchief around, tapping at her hips with a syncopated rhythm — it wasn’t as visibly possessed by her own music as she was. During her live shows, Whitney was enraptured. Her eyes were often closed as though she was in communion with God. None of that spiritual ecstasy was present during the Sheffield set. Meanwhile, scattered applause from the audience accompanied the end of each song, while one man jokingly screamed “Get off the stage!” to the unresponsive hologram just before her rendition of “I Will Always Love You.”
That’s not to say the audience didn’t love it, only that they intuited a new way to interact with something that couldn’t interact back. Of all the audience members I spoke to after the show, none of them had any serious criticisms. “I wanted to go up there and shake her hand. It was faultless,” said one. Another wished the hologram was “fatter,” adding that “surely she was never that skinny.”
In that way, An Evening with Whitney Houston is a successful misremembering of the late Grammy winner. The hologram projected a fantasy of a woman unmarred by fame, abuse, drugs, the pressure to uphold an unstable vision of perfection. It was everything we wanted Whitney to be, as we temporarily allowed ourselves to forget the consequences of such eulogistic thinking.
“Saving All My Love”
“All the Man I Need”
“I Have Nothing”
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody”
“It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”
“I Believe In You and Me”
“Run to You”
“Step by Step”
“How Will I Know”
“My Love Is Your Love”
“The Greatest Love of All”
“I Will Always Love You”
“Queen of the Night” (Dancers Only)
“I’m Every Woman”