Mariah Carey review – delightful diva is all you want for Christmas

Manchester Arena
With sugar-plum fairies, drummer boys and Mariah hitting those incredible high notes, the only thing missing from this high camp festive show is live reindeer

“Lambs!” Mariah Carey addressed her 20 million Twitter followers last month. “Just in time for the holiday gift-giving season, it seems I’ve received a present of my own; a lovely upper respiratory infection after last week’s flu. Bleak!” Nine dates of her All I Want for Christmas is You: A Night of Joy and Festivity tour, a seasonal fandango that has pitted Mariah against Santa for the last four years, were cancelled. Happily, her two UK shows survived, giving the British branch of the Lambily (as the Lambs are collectively known) something to cheer about – this is only her second set of British shows since 2003.

The concept, which evolved from a residency at New York’s Beacon theatre, recognises the fact that, while Carey may not be the album-seller she once was, she has Christmas sewn up. The 1994 single All I Want for Christmas Is You is her festive passport, charting every year – it’s currently No 5 in the UK, and showing its annual spike in Google’s trending chart, along with a “related enquiry” about how much it has earned in royalties ($60m, reportedly).

What the Night of Joy and Festivity offers is the top-selling female singer of all time focusing on the time of year that most accords with her core qualities. Splashiness, sentimentality, sparkle with all the trimmings – Carey is in her element here. The production includes, just for starters, elves, a sugar-plum fairy, carolers, Nutcracker drummer boys, a full-sized Christmas tree and dancers dressed as reindeer. If she could have swung it, live reindeer might have featured – she has them at her family celebration, naturally. “I don’t know why that would be a surprise,” she says, undermining the perception that a woman known for her “divatude” couldn’t possibly have a sense of humour.

Humour? The show is steeped in it, from the high camp of her being lifted aloft by two hunky male dancers to the segment that would usually feature a cameo appearance from her young twins, known as “dem babies”. They would be on stage with her, singing along to new power ballad The Star – one of the set’s only non-Christmas features – but, as they’re six years old, they’re asleep. “I try to be a responsible person, so let them sleep, right?” It’s safe to say that Carey also sees the funny side of this candy-cane fantasia, with its four costume changes and onstage team of perhaps 35. Nobody could witness this 75 minutes without concluding that Carey is a good egg.

There’s a single digression, when she explains why she chose Manchester as the only UK date other than London. “I’m glad we got to bring our love to you here, especially this year, especially in this building.” Reconstruction work is still ongoing, seven months after the terror attack at Ariana Grande’s show, and Carey asks for a moment “to honour all affected by the tragedy”. A moving Joy to the World follows, seguing from the old English carol to the 1970 Hoyt Axton pop song of the same name.

Having released two Christmas albums, Carey is not short of appropriate songs, and often plumps for less obvious choices. Though she starts with the solidly traditional Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, accompanied by white-clad musicians and falling snow, the next song is the jazzy theme from A Charlie Brown Christmas, complete with excerpts from the 1965 TV special on the back screen. She vigorously visits Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home), bending to pick up a toy lamb thrown from the crowd. “So sweet,” she says. “I’ve got all my Lambies with me.”

Several self-penned songs, such as Oh Santa! and When Christmas Comes, are thoroughly gone over, the latter de-sugared by monochrome video footage of her beloved New York. As Carey-composed baubles go, they’re fine, but essentially filler in a set that can only end one way. When All I Want for Christmas is You is unleashed as the finale – and “unleashed” is scant exaggeration – Carey’s talent merges definitively with her showiness. The uplift created is so powerful that when she leaves the stage, a backing vocalist keeps singing, unwilling to let the night end.

Before we reach the encore, there’s still a fair amount of Christmas to tackle. With every song a set piece employing scenery, costumes and, at one point, a five-minute confetti shower, the show must cost a fortune to stage. Then there’s the toll exacted on Carey, who never seems entirely comfortable balancing on her high heels. Her voice, though, remains remarkable. Her C-5 high note, which has a YouTube compilation of its own, is unimpaired; she makes eye-opening use of it on Silent Night. Her whistle note is greeted with cheers whenever she stands still at the mic and conjures it up, which she does with an air of purpose. Stung by previous criticism that her backing singers do much of the heavy lifting, she demonstrates that she still has it. And, I would contend, never lost it.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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