Toni Braxton played a clever trick on her fans at the Sprint Center on Friday.
The voice of the melodramatic R&B star was little more than a wispy flutter as she sang the opening lines of her 1996 hit “Un-Break My Heart” to open the show. Members of the audience of a few thousand gasped in dismay.
Knowing that Braxton, 49, had recently been hospitalized for a lupus-related health scare, they had reason to be concerned about the condition of her voice. Braxton gradually turned her instrument loose, closing the song with a guttural roar.
Noting that “doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to finish this tour,” Braxton only occasionally flashed the full range of the burnished voice that made her one of the most beloved R&B vocalists of recent decades. Even so, her 80-minute outing was riveting.
A superb showman, Braxton combines the theatrical flair of Barbra Streisand with the arresting physicality of Beyoncé. Braxton preserved her strength by sharing stories about her career, plugging the forthcoming season of her reality television program “Braxton Family Values,” inviting fans to the stage to belt out hits including “Another Sad Love Song” and having the entire audience sing “You Mean the World to Me.” She also insisted that devotees admire her wardrobe changes.
The most entertaining diversion began as Braxton dismissed musical director Rob Lewis from his piano bench so that she could accompany herself on the traditional communion hymn “Let Us Break Bread Together” and riff on playful tributes to vocalists Michael McDonald and Anita Baker.
After breaking into tears while thanking fans for their prayers, she sniffled and sighed her way through “How Could an Angel Break My Heart.” She dedicated “Let It Flow” to the late Whitney Houston, an artist with a similarly gorgeous voice and a life that, like hers, served as tabloid fodder.
While she struggled to find the proper key on “Spanish Guitar,” even her off notes contained enchanting sonorities. And she sang like an avenging angel on the disdainful “I Wish.”
A four-piece band and pre-recorded backing vocals occasionally quashed Braxton’s singing, but the plight of After 7 and Ro James was far worse. A dismal sound field submerged each opening act’s vocals underneath a punishing waves of rumbling bass.
TONI BRAXTON SETLIST
Un-Break My Heart
Love Shoulda Brought You Home
Another Sad Love Song
Seven Whole Days
Just Be a Man About It
You Mean the World to Me
How Could an Angel Break My Heart
Let It Flow
I Love Me Some Him
How Many Ways
You're Makin' Me High
He Wasn't Man Enough