The tour's kickoff in Prague draws a crowd but fails to please

Letna Plain is consecrated ground. Half a million women and men once gathered on the broad bluff overlooking Prague’s Vltava River and toppled the Communist rulers of then Czechoslovakia. Five months later, in April 1990, Pope John Paul II blessed their nation’s independence with a mass held in the vast meadow. Last week, Michael Jackson planted a stage where the pontiff had set his altar.

Welcome to the post-Cold War world, where pop culture is king, and the King of Pop can play God. It’s fitting that Jackson kicked off his extravagant world tour — his first since the 1993 child-molestation scandal — in Prague. A haven for young expatriates seeking naked profit and some lingering revolutionary chic, the Czech capital is now transfixed by the cult of celebrity rather than the Soviet cult of personality. On the pedestal that once held one of the world’s largest Stalin statues, concert organizers raised a 33-foot fiberglass likeness of Jacko, filled with hundreds of gallons of water.

Perhaps it should have been left hollow, for the widely anticipated HIStory tour (as yet, no U.S. dates have been set) had all the blissful disdain for reality of classic Soviet agitprop. Jackson’s chartered 707 and two Antonov-124 cargo planes ferried equipment and a 250-man crew across the Atlantic, to be reinforced by a local workforce of more than 2,000. Following a cancellation in Morocco (officials were uneasy with the prospect of unruly crowds) the singer scratched his shows in Germany to avoid paying taxes on ticket sales, leading Czech police to expect an influx of another 50,000 fans.

The press hungrily chronicled every step in his weeklong itinerary, whether he was visiting a Prague children’s home or Czech president Vaclav Havel’s hilltop castle. (A German TV van accidentally ran over a 13-year-old boy, breaking his leg, while chasing the superstar.) But such fervor dimmed at the show itself, held on a damp, chilly Saturday night. Although more than 100,000 fans packed Letna Plain for the Sept. 7 concert, scalpers outside had sliced their asking price for $26 tickets to $1.85. ”Please buy these tickets,” pleaded one. ”I’ve lost all my money on this concert, I have to eat.”

Jackson, who shared the field with his mammoth likeness, was further dwarfed by his own spectacle. Proving once again his gift for unwitting self-mockery, he chose to emerge on stage from a silvery space capsule, clad head-to-toe in C-3PO hand- me-downs, before launching into ”Scream.” Unfortunately, few of those without $200 VIP seats caught the brother-from-another- planet act. Huge video screens were pitched too low for most of the crowd to glimpse much more than Jackson’s head, and a poorly fitted sound system mangled his early numbers. (Even Czech rock star Michael Kocab, who watched the show with Havel, later complained, ”It was like watching Jackson [perform] in the next village.”) When the singer finally addressed the crowd, his words of greeting drew a feeble response.

Only after he abandoned newer material for a medley of Jackson 5 hits did the crowd begin to stir. Their enthusiasm peaked about halfway into the 2-hour-and-10-minute show, when Jackson opened a suitcase and pulled out the famous satin jacket and glove: A moonwalked ”Billie Jean,” a limp ”Thriller,” ”Beat It” (sung from a catwalk 30 feet above the stage), and, oddly, a cover of the Beatles’ ”Come Together” drew the evening’s loudest cheers. He closed the show, however, on the same oblivious note with which he began — crooning ”Heal the World” while surrounded by a gaggle of kids ages 3 to 13. For one credited as a master showman, Jacko still has a lot to learn about appearances.

(Reported by Peter S. Green in Prague)