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September 19, 2014

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Photos: Elton John’s brilliant showmanship on every level imaginable

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Denise Truscello/WireImage/DeniseTruscello.net

Elton John’s The Million Dollar Piano at Caesars Palace on Sept. 28, 2011.

Elton John's The Million Dollar Piano at Caesars Palace

Elton John's The Million Dollar Piano at Caesars Palace on Sept. 28, 2011. Launch slideshow »

There’s no question that Sir Elton John is a true genius and superstar singer, songwriter and performer who dominates the giant Colosseum stage at Caesars Palace. But he’s got some pretty stiff onstage competition for attention.

First, there’s the 3,200-pound piano that took Yamaha engineers four years to handcraft. Elton joked: “It’s got everything except a barbecue.” To prove that it’s the wildest piano in the world, he showcased its glass top with an aquarium of fish on its 68 LED video screens that lit up at one point proudly displaying its $1 million price tag. (A second identical one will be auctioned off for charity.)

Then there’s the massive 120-foot-wide-by-60-foot-tall, seamless, wall-to-wall video screen that dominates the Colosseum stage. Creative director Tony King and video producer Sam Pattinson have to be congratulated for their totally unique and creative content. I’ve never seen anything like this -- it’s truly awesome, majestic, monumental and mind-blowing, a kaleidoscopic assault on the senses using outrageous carnival colors from a psychedelic trip.

Talk about shock and awe as it punches up amazing videos of Elton’s career and personal life that winds up with his marriage to partner David Furnish and their baby. Later when the wall explodes with visuals from the world’s most extraordinary fairground, it becomes the high-energy ride of a lifetime, as this fabulous photo gallery by Brian Jones of Las Vegas News Bureau, Denise Truscello and Erik Kabik shows.

Then comes Elton’s veteran lineup of musicians, plus two new cellists who duel at one point with his electronic guitarist. It’s hats off and a 21-gun salute to drummer and percussionist Ray Cooper, who, splendid in suit and tie, creates more magic at his special setup (drums, congas, gongs, cymbals, tubular bells, xylophone and timpani) than Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich could have dreamed possible.

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Elton John's The Million Dollar Piano at Caesars Palace on Sept. 28, 2011.

Click to enlarge photo

Elton John's The Million Dollar Piano at Caesars Palace on Sept. 28, 2011.

Click to enlarge photo

Elton John's The Million Dollar Piano at Caesars Palace on Sept. 28, 2011.

Ray is a miracle and magical musician, and Elton rightfully gives him two special acknowledgments in the dazzling and nonstop 120-minute show. It’s been 16 years since Ray was with the full band. This lineup has never before been seen at an Elton John concert.

In advance of the show, Elton promised to raise the bar for Las Vegas entertainment, and he more than succeeded. It is brilliant showmanship on every level imaginable. The AEG producers called it “a triumphant return,” but I believe technically it might be the best show ever assembled.

Elton said that it all came together in just four months. Credit is due to English photographer Sam Taylor-Wood, who created this pop culture masterpiece that is 100 giant strides on from Red Piano, Elton’s previous Caesars success with photographer David LaChappelle.

“At this time, I’ve never enjoyed playing more live than I have now,” said Elton, and he proved it right from the get-go when he swept onstage in a head-to-toe, gold-sequined lame cloak -- right out of Liberace’s closet -- for his opening salvo of “The Bitch Is Back.” His bluesy English tenor turned baritone seems to be the strongest it’s ever been -- richer, deeper and all despite throat surgery in the 1980s. It won him ovation after ovation of every hit song he packed into the rocket-speed Captain Fantastic spectacular.

He acknowledged that “he wouldn’t be here tonight” if it wasn’t for his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin and recalled the days back in his parents’ Harrow flat 20 miles outside London -- where I also grew up -- where they first wrote together.

In between songs, he talked comfortably with the audience, joking that The Colosseum stage had produced miracles while he was away: Celine Dion’s new babies, Cher’s daughter who became a son, Rod Stewart becoming a new dad, proud grandfather and father-in-law to actor Benicio del Toro, and Elton himself taking on new baby parenting duties. “If you want to get pregnant, just come up onstage” he teased.

His four backup singers Tata Vega, Jean Witherspoon and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Rose Stone (yes, of her brother Sly’s Family Stone) and her daughter Lisa Stone were the perfect soulful, funky, gospel accompaniment. Cellists Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser scored and soared with their outrageous stylings so much so that they’re certain to get their own stage act while here from Croatia.

Actor and magician Neil Patrick Harris and his partner David Burtka, The Killers frontman Brandon Flowers, Caesars Palace President Gary Selesner and AEG head honcho John Meglen were among the VIP first-night audience, and they joined Elton after the show for a celebration at Chef Michel Richard’s new Central 24/7.

Elton’s five-year run at Caesars with Red Piano began in February 2004. What began as a 75-show commitment over three years expanded to 241 shows over five years that ended in April 2009. And now again The Million Dollar Piano shows are being expanded: Tickets went on sale last night for additional dates throughout February.

Click to enlarge photo

Elton John's The Million Dollar Piano at Caesars Palace on Sept. 28, 2011.

Click to enlarge photo

Elton John's The Million Dollar Piano at Caesars Palace on Sept. 28, 2011.

Click to enlarge photo

Elton John's The Million Dollar Piano at Caesars Palace on Sept. 28, 2011.

Elton’s 40th anniversary Las Vegas show was nothing but the hits: from “The Bitch Is Back” opening onto “Benny and the Jets,” Captain Fantastic’s “Better Off Dead,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “I’m Still Standing,” “Hey Ahab” (his salute to Leon Russell), “Tiny Dancer,” “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” and “Your Song.”

Two standouts were his “Blue Eyes” tribute to late friend actress Elizabeth Taylor and his epic “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” with a shining setting sun that bathed the stage and the auditorium in glowing gold rays. The video of Elizabeth even sparkled like the facets of her mighty-expensive rings and jewelry. How do you top that? Well, Elton’s finale was his The Lion King hit “Circle of Life.”

But that piano is definitely part of the show’s success story. Elton introduced it as his new girlfriend Blossom, and it’s the sixth in his collection all named after female singers including Aretha Franklin, Diana Krall, Nina Simone and Winifred Atwell, the latter an inspiration while growing up in London.

“The piano is functional as a work of art and as a playable instrument containing state-of-the-art video and lighting that explodes the boundaries of instrument and performer. It reacts to how Elton plays -- more intense, less intense. For the first time, it’s a visual and audio storyteller,” Yamaha VP and Artist Services chief Chris Gero said.

The 10-foot-long concert grand cost $1.3 million, but who’s counting the overage?! “When I had the Red Piano, it was like driving a Ferrari. It looked fantastic and was incredibly successful. But this takes it to a whole new level. Now it’s like getting into a Formula 1 racing car. It’s absolutely perfect,” said Elton, who collaborated on its design with 27-year-old industrial designer Akie Hinokio and her Yamaha team led by Chris.

All hand-assembled, its interior contains a harp and hardware made from nickel instead of the usual brass. Live cameras are mounted behind the keys so the audience gets a piano’s-eye-view of the action. Built-in sensors in the keyboard let Elton trigger visual effects throughout the theater and add sonic enhancements. Yamaha has five technicians who maintain it and tune it before each performance.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit for this outstanding theatrical extravaganza to the show’s design team of Mark Fisher and Patrick Woodroffe. Mark, best known for his design of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is the mastermind behind the show’s impressive set. Patrick, best known for his work with The Rolling Stones, conceived and designed the lighting effects that dazzle and augment the majestic set and perfect piano.

The show is a mile-a-minute, goose-bump experience. Elton goes through it all with ease looking relaxed and comfortable. But it’s such an emotional experience of musical creativity at its finest that you feel KO’d like a boxer after 10 rounds. It’s a visual and aural assault on the senses that leaves you exhausted yet simultaneously deliriously happy and thrilled.

Don’t be at all surprised if it’s a total sellout with the three-year term quickly expanding to five. Don’t run to the box office -- race there. You’ll be talking about The Million Dollar Piano for years to come. Simply put, it’s one epic masterpiece of musical entertainment.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow VDLX Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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