Until last year, the Pet Shop Boys shunned performing live. And one could see why at their March 28 show at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, part of a short debut U.S. tour that ended in Boston on April 11. The shy duo prefers to rely on their wits rather than their charisma — and wits are pretty hard to visualize.
The Pets made a brave attempt to display their brains, however, via an extravagant stage show that featured 10 dancers, three backup singers, and a series of elaborate tableaux meant to enhance the mostly preprogrammed music. While vocalist Neil Tennant (accompanied by keyboardist Chris Lowe) sang over computer-driven backing tracks, the audience was treated to a shifting array of futuristic images — like the giant cloud-filled window and exploding clock that dominated the stage — culled from paintings by such surrealists as Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. There were many other references to arty authors, painters, and movies. In my favorite sequence, which accompanied the song ”Opportunities,” the stage was crowded with three-piece-suited piglets grouped around a giant personal computer, illustrating the song’s lyrics: ”You’ve got the looks/I’ve got the brains/Let’s make lots of money.”
Not all of the show’s theatrics were quite that easy to decipher. The scene in which a group of jack-o’-lantern-headed ladies square danced with skeletons, for instance, was puzzling. It didn’t help matters that the sets and costumes were far superior to the choreography, which merely bunched oddly dressed characters who paraded around while the two Pet Shop Boys, dressed in neon-colored suits and bowler hats, stood on surfboards, locked themselves into little cages, lay listlessly on stretchers, or seated themselves on a couch. On ”My October Symphony” and ”Rent” the duo actually left the stage and let the backup singers take over the vocals entirely.
Although Tennant and Lowe are to be commended for mixing their media, the stagy images seldom added anything to the songs’ intrinsic meaning. In fact, it wasn’t until the encore (Elvis Presley’s B-side ”Always on My Mind,” a smash for Willie Nelson and a big pop hit for the Pet Shop Boys in 1988) that the band first cracked a smile — and, incidentally, that the audience began to cheer, clap, and dance along, acting, at last, as if they were at a concert or discotheque rather than at a pretentious art salon surrounded by snooty aesthetes.