By Neil Drumming
April 02, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

If ever a concert cliche were warranted, it would have to be the jets of flame erupting at the start of Beyonce’s ”Crazy in Love,” heralding the sizzling diva’s ubiquitous ”uh-oh dance.” The mix of practical pyro and ”Wow, that’s practically porno” was mesmerizing as Ms. Knowles and several bodacious beauties in identical red heels and denim Daisy Dukes shook the stage at Fort Lauderdale’s Office Depot Center on Friday, March 12. The fiery finale, while major, was just another fatty moment in a multipart extravaganza that excelled in spite of excess.

The kickoff night of the much-anticipated Verizon Ladies First Tour crawled to a start with a find-your-seats warm-up by basketball wife Tamia. Not soon enough, a fluorescent green Adidas sweatshirt backdrop unzipped to reveal Missy Elliott’s giant Damien Hirst-worthy fish tank. With each song — and there were too many — the cage alternately went opaque and transparent, revealing sharks, shirtless ”Hot Boys,” and more. Dancers switched outfits to the beat — slickers for ”The Rain,” Technicolor wigs for ”Fix My Weave” — while Missy, clad in glittering, post — Rhythm Nation couture, chirped out lighthearted raps. But lacking live band interpretation, Timbaland’s percussive backing tracks fused into an arena-size rattle, all bombast to little effect.

Alicia Keys met Missy’s energy head-on with ramped-up renditions of her typically mellow material. But Keys was at her best — albeit most self-indulgent — solo and spotlit behind a baby grand, belting out melodrama. Her old-school references charmed, and her clap-along ”How Come You Don’t Call Me” obliterated the CD version. Mounting the piano, tickling keys with one hand, she struck a quirky balance between class and kitsch.

After a brutally long set change, Beyonce arrived in a fluffy white chariot. From then until the end, when Jay-Z personally delivered his barely audible ”Crazy in Love” lyric to a screaming house, the Glam-O-Meter redlined. Through blinding costume changes, lascivious choreography, deafeningly reverb-ed melisma, and glorified invocations of everyone retro — from James Brown to Tina Turner to, well, Destiny’s Child — Beyonce connected directly with ”us,” thanks to her winning smile. (An enormous, rotating monitor capturing that smile from virtually every conceivable angle didn’t hurt, of course.)