Monday, Dec. 3, 2012 | 12:31 p.m.
At the end of Shania Twain’s show "Still the One" at the Colosseum in Caesars Palace, extraordinary broad and tall letters spelling S-H-A-N-I-A descend on the stage.
These letters seem to be three times the height of the star of the show. At this point, Shania is totally dwarfed and shadowed by … SHANIA.
This is the great challenge for Twain’s just-opened residency at the Colosseum: Make this show starring an artist with simple, ample and old-school skills a Las Vegas spectacle. But don’t lose the charm of the woman who not only boasts of coming from “the sticks” of northern Ontario, but defines exactly what “the sticks” means: “It’s when there are more trees than people.”
I don’t know about y’all, but I never knew that to be the actual definition of the sticks. I just thought it was a synonym for East Jesus or the Boonies.
Twain has recorded many hit songs, about a half-dozen readily recognizable and most recorded in her commercial peak of the mid-1990s to the release of her "Greatest Hits" album in 2004. She was introduced with a grand video display -- and this show takes advantage of the Colosseum’s 120-foot-wide LED screen as well as any production to play the big theater -- that showed her riding a horse and then a motorcycle in the shape of a horse as she roared toward Vegas with a backdrop that greatly resembled Red Rock Canyon. She then floated over the audience on that bike, hoisted by thin but strong cables, and delivering on the Vegas flair that director Raj Kapoor promised in a news conference the day before the show.
Twain, too, made a promise -- to perform with a live horse onstage in some sort of significant way. During the song that has graced a million wedding receptions, “You're Still the One,” she arrived from stage right (and you could see this happening behind the curtain if you were seated at house right) with a beautiful white horse in tow. She led the horse, named El Alcazar, to the stage, and the two stepped carefully around a large rectangular pad on the floor as Twain sang the beautiful number while wearing a flowing white dress.
How the horse worked into the lyric of the song, exactly, is open to interpretation. I took it to mean that amid all of Twain’s personal struggles and pain and growth, El Alcazar is still there to be ridden, walked around the pen and, occasionally, showcased on the Vegas stage.
The horse-as-guest-star approach was investigated in an earlier scene, too. Delivering “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” and “Any Man of Mine” in tight jeans and pink boots with a matching top, Twain was surrounded by a Dodge City-like saloon scene and her rollicking 13-piece band. For this segment, Twain again performed with a horse, the blackened beauty Molesso, who was held still by a gent performing a rope trick whose skills for this segment can be listed thusly: 1) horse-holding and 2) rope-twirling.
Not to nitpick, but when the performers onstage are nearly flawless, anything substandard -- such as loose rope-twirling -- is magnified. But in a far larger context, this show represents the most inventive and overt use of equines in a Strip show since “Cheval” was staged in a hand-painted tent in the Bellagio parking lot a decade ago.
Twain’s love for animals is not exclusive to horses. She enjoys leopards, too, wearing an outfit partially printed in leopard skin, performing in front of an LED scene that is a desert landscape covered in leopard spots and singing with hologram images of leopards on either side of the stage. We’ve hit the “over” on leopard images in this production.
Twain has said the show reflects her biography and intensely personal tastes, and that is conveyed throughout. She has so much natural appeal that it is easy to fall for many of the songs that bloom into full-scale production numbers. Her use of a glowing campfire during “Come on Over” is a moment that is at once effective and ripe for improvement.
Twain invites a few audience members to the stage, a quartet of giddy fans including one who had seen Twain perform 22 times over the years. During this stretch, the star for the first time introduces her sister Carrie Ann Brown to the audience. Before Carrie Ann joined the Colosseum show, the two had not sung together onstage since Shania was 10 and Carrie Ann 8.
But what many in the audience likely don’t realize is the sister of Shania has been singing backup for the entire show with no formal introduction. If there is a scene to tighten, focusing on Twain’s banter with the audience members and the positioning of all these folks atop the imitation rocks surrounding the fake fire, it’s this one.
More pertinent is the quality of Twain’s voice, as she embarks on a 60-show, two-year residency after an eight-year absence from live performing. Those who saw her preview performances last week and heard her again Saturday night say the Saturday show was her strongest. But even at her best, Twain is not the type of singer whose voice alone will carry a performance. Frequently, her vocals were maddeningly buried by the musicians. The band rocks far harder (and a lot louder) than a pure country band, often reaching stadium-rock audio levels, and Twain’s singing was detectably diminished in these moments.
As for the musicians, they are front-and-center, moving ably around Twain during nearly every number (an indication of the players’ dedication is cellist Mandy Andreasen actually learned to play fiddle just for the “Still the One” performances). The band burns and is deservedly showcased a lot more effectively than any other Colosseum show, and that, too, is a major selling point. Twain claims not to be a dancer, but she scoots around the stage fluidly and is a stunning beauty at the remarkably hard-to-fathom age of 47.
Twain has a wide and loyal following, but what happens when the Colosseum production burns through those devotees and needs to chisel into those who own no Shania Twain music? AEG Live and Caesars Entertainment officials hope to duplicate, at least to some degree, the type of groundswell of popularity ignited by Celine Dion’s early performances at the Colosseum nearly a decade ago.
First the fervent fans flocked to Caesars, and powerful word-of-mouth accounts and media coverage drew those who were only marginally interested in Celine’s career to the Colosseum. These days, even such unlikely figures as Jane’s Addiction founder Perry Farrell have seen Celine’s show and come away genuinely impressed.
Whether Twain will enjoy such a successful arc is difficult to predict. She is a beautiful person, no doubt of that, and handles herself with the grace and precision of a true star. She is an extraordinarily hard worker, and her attention to detail is already becoming the stuff of legend around the show.
It’s a lot to work with; as they say on the ranch, it’s time to saddle up.