‘Welcome to Whitney Houston, very much alive,” says the star of the show, except she isn’t Houston. The American singer died aged 48 in 2012, yet has been recreated by a touring hologram. The music business has form in this area. Elvis died in 1977 and has been “in concert, on screen”, for years, backed by original musicians. However, holo-Whitney is something else. It is eerily realistic, give or take its unusually floppy arms, occasionally jerky movements and the fact that it barely moves a foot each way from centre stage. The mouth doesn’t always seem quite in sync with the vocals. Holo-Whitney certainly doesn’t appear to open its mouth wide enough to emit the gigantic whoa-oh-ohs that are supposedly coming out of it.
The hologram doesn’t walk on or off the stage, but appears and disappears, like an astral projection, at one point emerging through the floor. The live band being all but invisible behind lighting screens adds to the sense of smoke and mirrors. There is one admittedly dazzling visual moment, when Whitney dissolves in a blaze of fireworks and is instantly replaced by another in a different costume. For all the technology on display, it’s most remarkable to remember that the phenomenal singing voice used once belonged to an actual human being.
If you close your eyes it’s possible to bask in that voice and the unadulterated joy of I Wanna Dance With Somebody and How Will I Know. But when you open them, it is deeply unsettling. “Come arrnn Whitney,” someone yells, bizarrely, while the dead star’s impassioned cries of “no matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity” jar awkwardly with the sense of a ghoulish cash in. (Though perhaps not as much cash as intended, given the rows of empty seats.) There’s a flickering chasm where a huge talent and vulnerable person used to be. Far from celebrating Houston, the hologram tour is a reminder of tragedy, and the enormity of what was lost.
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