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Betting on a lot of full houses

Las Vegas again gambles on star power as Celine Dion's show opens with lots of music and flash.

March 27, 2003|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — There are people here who will tell you Celine Dion's stage show is the biggest launch since the Titanic. Presumably, they are speaking about the hit movie.

There certainly did seem to be a lot of expectations -- and anxiety -- in the air Tuesday night when "A New Day" opened in the $95-million theater built for it inside Caesars Palace.

The show gives us Dion at what may be her best as a performer, but it doesn't offer much of the magic expected from her collaborator Franco Dragone, the wizard behind many Cirque du Soliel productions.

"This is a show about pain, doubt, laughter, talent, beauty, music, friendship, songs," Dion writes in the concert program.

Well, yes, it's about that -- and money.

In an unprecedented venture for a star of her level, Dion will perform five nights a week for three years in the tri-level, 4,000-seat Colosseum under a deal that is believed to bring her at least $45 million. Ticket prices range from $87.50 to $200. There's also a large shop next to the theater selling all sorts of things Celine, from T-shirts and shot glasses to a limited edition handbag for $3,400.

The fact that the hotel and its partners are betting so much on a pop star is a welcome break from Las Vegas' recent tendency to rely on theatrical productions to draw customers. It's a step back toward the day when Vegas showrooms presented stars the size of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.

The hedge in this case is that Dion isn't coming to the Strip with just a concert, but as part of a would-be theatrical spectacular boasting Dragone's wonder and awe. But the only real wonder Tuesday was how "A New Day" got to opening night with so little awe.

Dion is the kind of powerful presence that makes your pulse quicken -- for better or worse. Her fans, who have made her one of the biggest-selling recording artists ever, marvel at the vocal purity and power that lets her hit and hold high notes other singers can only dream about.

Others, however, cringe at the frequent lack of understatement in her approach and the generic nature of much of her material.

In returning to live performances after a break to start a family, Dion, 34, showed encouraging restraint vocally. When she had worthy material (mostly songs other than her hits), she lit up the stage, especially when saluting some of her favorite singers. Her version of the Etta James hit "At Last," had urgency, and her treatment of the Frank Sinatra favorite "I've Got the World on a String," actually swung.

But the attempts to make this show special by giving us a sort of Cirque du Celine mostly fell short.

There was certainly a lot of activity on stage, but little of it seemed to bring Dion or the audience forward. The opening was especially flat. Dion first appeared as a tiny figure high on the $6 million LED video screen that dominates the rear of the slanted stage. She slowly walked down a series of steps until she stood in front of us, and we were underway. Not exactly what you come to Vegas for, right?

That wasn't the only time there was no payoff. Even when Dion was lifted high above the stage during "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" -- one of the most talked-about segments in the weeks leading up to the opening -- it was done in such slow, deliberate fashion that it failed to stir any excitement.

Other characters came and went and came and went. Two men, one dressed in a white suit and looking ghostly, the other wearing a bellhop outfit, came and went most often, reminding you of the figures who walk endlessly along the beach in Fellini movies.

A small army of dancers also moved about the stage, sometimes joyfully, sometimes mournfully, but rarely with a sense of adventure or imagination. And what about the usual Cirque special effects? Most of the video screen images seemed familiar, whether melancholy (a massive tree with its leaves slowly falling) or frantic (cars racing through city streets at night).

Chandeliers floated to the ceiling and trees burst through the stage floor. One moment that did recall the wonder of the best Cirque affairs was a parade of oversized musical instruments that flew across the stage during "World on a String."

Little of it, however, brought a sense of revelation or fire to the proceedings, the way the props and extras did during Madonna's less elaborate but more daring tours and the way U2's visual aids electrified the crowd during its "Zoo TV" dates. And Dion didn't try for the intimacy and autobiographical flair that made Barbra Streisand's New Year's Eve shows at the MGM Grand here a decade ago memorable.

When things worked Tuesday, it was usually due simply to Dion's performance. When things seemed dry, the blame didn't always rest with the staging. In one of the most daring sequence, a dozen or so bare-chested male dancers crawled over and around Dion to act out her sexual fantasies during "Seduces Me," but the gangly singer isn't an especially sensual performer, and there was no heat in the sequence.

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