By STEVE FRIESS
You knew that going in, of course, because Caesars Palace had no intention of soft-pedaling the moment. For months, a 40-foot-tall banner of Celine peering over her shoulder overlooked the casino floor with the tag: “Celine’s Back.” Get it? Her back? She’s back? Yup.
Then, in February, she, her husband and her three sons, including those newborn twins, arrived at Caesars in an Escalade direct from the airport for a welcome ceremony in the main entrance through which she bestrode a carpet of rose petals and was cheered by 1,000 employees hoping she alone could revive this gambling town’s sagging fortunes. USA Today, Newsweek and both Las Vegas newspapers have all asked in different ways whether she could “save” Vegas.
That’s a lot to put on anybody’s svelte shoulders, let alone a pop star. But if performing a fantastic production show is all it takes to turn around the nation’s worst home foreclosure and unemployment rates, Celine absolutely would be the panacea. Her first pass at Vegas, that legendary run from 2003 to 2007 of “…A New Day” in the 4,000-seat, $95 million showroom built to her specifications, was an overblown affair of Cirque du Soleil-style theatrics, costumes, dancers and props that left her looking small and marginalized, almost part of the band.
“Celine,” by contrast, is a simpler, less sprawling tour de force in which she is firmly the centerpiece at all times in a succession of glittery gowns that occasionally showed perhaps a bit too much leg. The film that opens the act serves almost as a “And That’s What You Missed On (Vegas) Glee” segment, first showing her closing “…A New Day” on this very stage, then trotting the globe on tour, then snuggling with the twins, then arriving at the aforementioned Caesars welcome event. Finally, she appears in a floor-length silver dress with structured bodice, the 300-foot-wide stage seemingly shrunk by curtains and lighting as she begins belting Journey’s “Open Arms.” Just as the giddy audience got acclimated to being in her presence, the stage opens up in a chillingly effective reveal (that I won’t spoil) and suddenly she’s fronting three backup singers and a 31-piece orchestra. That earned the second of the night’s 10 standing ovations.
There are no dancers this time, just lots of black-tie musicians and one self-assured songbird whose powerful voice is, in all sincerity, a magical instrument that makes younger people understand why their parents were so in awe of Streisand. The graphical imagery serves her, but when the music stops so she can hit high notes in “All By Myself,” it’s like watching Evan Lysecek land a perfect jump. She bops between genres – some Ella Fitzgerald here, a little Janis Ian there, a Bond-song medley, a Stevie Wonder virtual duet, a Michael Jackson tribute and a French song that made her actually weep – leading to the inevitable “My Heart Will Go On” closer. (Aside to Celine: You’re not required to do that song with underwater visuals just because the song is tethered to “Titanic.” Just saying.)
The gee-whiz visuals also enhance the Legend of Celine. She is adored because she blossomed from gawky teen to beautiful icon while insisting she retains the heart of commoner, a happy-ending version of Evita or Diana. So in “Where Does My Heart Beat Now?” a dozen screens show her at various career stages – bad hair, odd makeup, ascendant star – and when she sings Billy Joel’s “Lullaby” we become privy to home movies of her boys’ milestones.
That’s where the schmaltz overflows. The opening-night crowd were die-hards, many from here native Canada, who devour each homespun morsel. In one odd moment, the crowd erupts when young Rene Charles is seen blowing out his birthday candles, as if he actually were doing so in person. That’s devotion.
She tells corny jokes, too, that her partisans devour. Of her 10-year-old, she cracks: “He loves baseball, football, basketball. He’s having a ball!” And even the softest bits of the show – she does “How Do You Keep The Music Playing” as a duet to herself, singing to a creepy, Princess Leia-esque hologram of her herself – yielded standing ovations.
As the show closed, an 11-year-old girl from Boca Raton, Fla., seated ahead of a row of journalists held her hands up together to make the shape of a heart, then kept attempting to frame Celine inside it. Her father turned around, pointed at a notebook and barked to the reviewers: “One word: Divine. Write that down. Deee-Vine!” Then he shouted his daughter’s name and insisted, “She’s next. This is the next Celine, right here.”
Their joy was so pure, it would have been unkind to disabuse him of his vision. But, as Caesars Palace and the Strip just found out, it’s safe to say there’s just one Celine. And, yes, she’s back.