Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011 | 1:23 p.m.
The value of $1 million depends entirely on how it is spent, and if Elton John has proven anything over his 40-year career, it’s that he knows how to make the most of his millions.
John has ordered up a piano grander than most any grand, naming it “Blossom,” for jazz vocalist Blossom Dearie, as John has named five previous pianos for his favorite female singers. He rolled this exotic instrument out Wednesday night as the centerpiece of his “The Million Dollar Piano” production at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace.
The performance kicked off the first spree of shows, in a three-year residency, that covers 16 dates through Oct. 23. (Tickets range from $55 in The Colosseum’s upper regions to $250 for a VIP package, not including fees. For information, go to Ticketmaster and key in “Elton John,” or simply visit the box office at Caesars Palace, which is at The Colosseum entrance as you head toward the sports book from Colosseum valet and the hotel’s parking garage, and if you reach the Pussycat Dolls blackjack pit, you have gone too far, my friend.)
John played 241 shows over five years in his “Red Piano” showcase at Caesars, a run that ended two years ago. In many areas, his latest production is more effective even than was “Red Piano,” impressive because that show unleashed John’s greatest hits and a full-scale video spectacle of giant inflated effects and a dizzying array of videos produced by image visionary David LaChappelle.
Realizing a “Red Piano II,” or “The Redder Piano,” production at Caesars would seem more derivative than inspired, John has managed to maintain the visual dynamism required to fill The Colosseum’s 125-foot-wide stage and still focus on the music.
How this show surpasses the previous launch by the self-dubbed Rocket Man:
• The instrument: Early, John joked that he wanted to talk of “my instrument, which is big and black.” Haha! But the Yamaha grand piano has been tricked out immensely, yet smartly, by John and Yamaha design wizards Akie Hinokio and Chris Gero. When you think “Million Dollar Piano,” you might figure a piano dipped in pure gold and studded with diamonds, but that is not the case. The piano took four years to build; The Colosseum itself took fewer than three years to construct. This storied instrument is outfitted with 68 LED screens (because, heck, 67 was just not enough), allowing videos to be played across its side panel as John performs. At one point, John said, “Kiki Dee has never played Las Vegas, until now!” as the 1975 video of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” was sampled. The piano gets a musical and video workout, and near show’s end, numbers spinning to $1 million roll across the side like a glowing telethon tally board. More telling, the visual effect keeps the audience focused on John at center stage, where it rightfully should be.
• The staging: John and his band are enveloped by a set that at once manages grandiosity and intimacy. A spacious video panel is set in the middle, winged by swirling, illuminated patterns on either side. Lights are ablaze throughout, but warmth exudes as John sings “Blue Eyes” to a video montage of his late, dear friend and AIDS/HIV activism pioneer Elizabeth Taylor. During “Philadelphia Freedom,” the stage is awash in red, white and blue. When John bounces through “I’m Still Standing,” shots and videos of him throughout his career are a noble complement, not a distraction.
It all makes for an uncommonly visceral experience. One musician in the city told me after seeing an early friends-and-family show Tuesday night that the montage of Taylor actually brought tears to his eyes in a manner that a stop-and-start production built with a dozen costume changes can’t quite achieve.
• The musicians: Joining such longtime holdovers as Davey Johnstone (lead guitarist who has backed John since the early 1970s) and drummer Nigel Olsson (an original band member who first teamed with John in 1969) are one of rock music’s great percussionists, Ray Cooper (billed as making a “special appearance” in this run); Sly and the Family Stone co-founder Rose Stone on backing vocals; and the Croatian cellist duo of Stepjan Hauser and Luka Sulic, whose away-from-Elton act is called 2Cellos. Oh, and John himself, who didn’t leave the stage for the two-hour performance and seems at this point in his career able to play the piano unconsciously.
• The songs: Few modern artists can match John’s vault of classics. Nearly every song was met with at least a partial standing ovation from the sellout crowd. He played favorites “The Bitch Is Back” (an apropos opener), “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Your Song,” “Levon,” “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” “Rocket Man” and “Benny and The Jets.” He also churned out some obscurata, including “Indian Sunset,” about the plight of the American Indian, from “Madman Across the Water.”
John ended with “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King,” what can be termed an “interesting choice” given that he performed the encore as the audience was still buzzing over “I’m Still Standing,” a classic showstopper.
But that is a quibble from a performance that was in many ways superior to and about a half-hour longer than its predecessor.
The piano is said to be worth a million bucks. Metaphorically speaking, the show is, too.