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October 20, 2014

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Kitsch is served: Elton’s ‘Red Piano’ over the top

If you go

Who: Elton John in "The Red Piano."

When: 7:30 p.m. through Feb. 22; Dark Monday and Feb. 19.

Where: The Colosseum at Caesars Palace.

Tickets: $100, $175 and $250.

Information: (702) 731-7110.

Rating (out of 5 stars): *****

Director David LaChapelle has managed to cram almost every popular cliche about Las Vegas onto the 22,500-square-foot stage of The Colosseum at Caesars Palace.

Biased national critics who have a hard time taking the Entertainment Capital of the World seriously, and who seem to gleefully slam it at every opportunity, should have a field day with Elton John's "The Red Piano."

The production is tacky, trashy, glitzy, neon-heavy, hyperbolic and possibly the most entertaining show in town.

There is onscreen semi-nudity. Breasts the size of hot-air balloons hang from the ceiling. At one point giant blowup phallic bananas, lipstick tubes, hot dogs and ice cream cones dominate the stage.

The stage is littered with piles of neon signs, at times dark and at times flashing brilliant colors.

Confetti and balloons float through the air. Inflatable roses grow to the size of elephants.

The only thing visually subdued about this 90-minute production that premiered Friday night before a capacity crowd of approximately 4,100, is the star.

Early in John's career he was prone to adorn himself in outlandish attire, sequins, boas and ostentatious eyeglasses. Apparently the tastes of the 56-year-old pop/rock star have toned down with age -- his three costumes for the show (black suits with colorful shirts) are conservative when compared to what hung in his closet in the '70s.

John speaks to the audience from time to time, once acknowledging the "classy" Celine Dion (the showroom's headliner, who has turned The Colosseum over to John for a minimum of 75 shows over the next three years).

He also acknowledged President Bush twice, neither time in particularly flattering terms.

John gratefully introduced his splendid band, most of whose members have been with him for decades, including guitarist Davey Johnstone, keyboardist Guy Babylon, bassist Bob Birch, percussionist John Mahon and drummer Nigel Olsson.

Although he is dearly loved by his fans, and he still has a dynamic voice that fills the room when he sings, the superstar is all-but dwarfed by the staging.

As John sits at the keyboard of his red piano banging out some of his biggest hits, attention is constantly drawn to the huge blow-up props -- and especially to the gargantuan LED video screen that spans the back of the stage.

The screen is a canvas for LaChappell, one of the world's great video directors.

Almost every song is accompanied by a video, all of which are brilliantly conceived and executed. Some of them are bizarre montages, as if there has been a collaboration between LaChappel, Frederico Fellini, Andy Warhol and John Waters.

One is heart wrenching: Played to the tune of "Daniel," the scene easily provides the most poignant moments of the night.

The camera focuses on a young man stretched out on a bed, dressed in pajamas, the shirt unbuttoned to reveal his chest and stomach; behind the sleeping figure are a man and woman cavorting on a beach.

Soon the scene evolves -- the young man, in the same position, is now wearing a military uniform as he lies on a stretcher, scenes of war playing behind him.

At the end, the man disappears from the cot and behind the cot is a military cemetery.

John called it one of the best videos he has ever seen.

But another video may reveal LaChappel's creative genius to an even greater degree -- it is of a scene depicting a young couple fighting/dancing in their living room.

The man is in a T-shirt and slacks, the woman is in panty hose and bra. In one corner of the videotaped living room is a television set. On the screen of the TV is an image of John as he performs live onstage, singing "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me."

At the end of the vignette, the couple go into a bedroom and the video does a time lapse in which the room ages -- paint peels, a ragged mattress appears in the middle of the floor of the littered room.

The video of Pamela Anderson pole dancing to the tune of 1974's "The Bitch Is Back" is provocative, if for no other reason than Anderson has a smoking hot body that defies nature.

However, Miss Hardbody can't pole dance for diddly. She should have taken some lessons rather than simply try to rely on her figure and her good looks. This is the Pole Dance Capital of the World -- The Palms even features poles in some of its rooms -- if you're going to impress people here, you've got to know what you're doing.

Another video features some surprise guests -- Justin Timberlake as a young Elton John wearing a zebra skin patterned suit, bowler hat and white boa; Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) as one of his assistants. The tape rolls while John sings "Rocket Man."

LaChappelle said at a press conference in October announcing the deal between John and Caesars Palace that it would be hard to choose which songs to include and which to omit from "The Red Piano."

Not making the cut were "Honky Cat," "Yellow Brick Road," "Crocodile Rock" and dozens of other hits that struck gold for John.

Among those that were included in "The Red Piano" was the 1973 version of "Candle in the Wind," written in memory of Marilyn Monroe and re-written in 1997 in memory of Princess Diana.

The video that accompanied "Candle" was of a sultry, sensual Monroe, sometimes cavorting around in a slip, sometimes exposing her chest.

Make no mistake, "The Red Piano" is strictly for adults. Most of the songs are from the early-to-mid '70s, including "Pinball Wizard," "Philadelphia Freedom" (which features a video of eight skyscrapers taking off like rockets) and "Tiny Dancer."

Children should stay home; John isn't going to sing any of his songs from Walt Disney's "The Lion King."

If productions such as "O," "Mystere" and "Mamma Mia!" are an attempt to reject Las Vegas' history of tackiness and sexuality, "The Red Piano" embraces the past as it thumbs its nose at taste and snooty critics.com

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