Elton John: The Red Piano
Elton John: The Red Piano

Elton John has achieved a rare pop-music feat in his Vegas-only show: With David LaChapelle, he has created a career overview piece that's visually stimulating and as artistically sound as it is commercial. Driving force in "The Red Piano" is a mammoth LED screen filled with compelling video images that, at their best, detail John's musical journey and place him in the context of pop culture over the last 30 years. Collectively it's as elaborate as his mid-'70s costume-heavy shows and, thanks to the consistently high quality and execution of the material, more spectacular than the outings of his heyday. This is a show people will talk about.

Simultaneously bigger than life and intimate, John's opening-night performance was inspired and graceful. Part of that's due to the fact that the Colosseum is a jewel box compared to the arenas he has been playing with Billy Joel the last few years as he coasted his way through hits. A month shy of his 57th birthday, John is in a comfortable place in Vegas: The images on the screen serve to remind us of his wackier days and the legendary Dodger Stadium concert, saving him the effort he usually puts into clowning around. It allows him to focus on being a serious performer.

His command of the lower register in which he's been singing since throat surgery 17 years ago has never been better, his song selection perfect for his vocals. In ballads such as "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" and "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," the hint of gravel in his voice makes for a particularly affecting performance. As he made clear in his mid-'90s perks, John is a stylistically varied and intriguing piano player. The set, which will be changed every so often, is dominated by '70s hits penned with Bernie Taupin; 12 of the show's 15 songs placed in the U.S. top 12, and two that didn't, "Tiny Dancer" and Pete Townshend's "Pinball Wizard" (with a snippet of "I Can't Explain" thrown in), are standards in John's canon. He also included "I Want Love," the single from his last album, the superb yet overlooked "Songs From the West Coast," and promised a new album in September (though he did not include any material from it or his film work).

Particularly for those seated in the balconies, the eye is drawn to the video screen that dwarfs John and his ace quintet rather than the performer at the stage-right red piano. The opener, "Bennie and the Jets," is played before an "ELTON" sign of neon letters seemingly removed from older casinos -- the "E" has the look of Elvis at the Hilton, the "T" sparkles like Barbary Coast signage. An assortment of neon signs also littered the stage and lit up on occasion.

On the second song, the simple imagery gives way to an explosion of eye candy. As John belts out "Philadelphia Freedom," multiple images of the Chrysler Building take off as rockets and stream into a parade of 1960s and '70s images -- John in oversized glasses and glitter, porn shots, men kissing, Beatlemania and so on.

In case it wasn't clear to all, John referred to the music and the videos by simply stating, "This is me. That was me." LaChappelle, a photographer by trade, mixes and matches technique and purpose with the videos. On "Daniel," he plays storyteller and clarifies the song's meaning -- it's about a solider killed in war -- and he reclaims "Candle in the Wind" for Marilyn Monroe, using a look-alike to romp through the poses inspired by Bert Stern's photo book "The Complete Last Sitting." Diane Arbus-inspired black-and-whites accompany "I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues"; Pamela Anderson, in pasties and a sparkling waist-level piece of clothing, shows her pole-dancing skills behind "The Bitch Is Back," the one music video combo that's pure fun. Inflatable set pieces, limited at first to crossed legs on one side and enormous breasts on the other, get out of control toward the end of the night as apples, bananas, a hot dog and a spilled ice cream cone fill the stage while the band goes uptempo with "I'm Still Standing" and "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting." It's overblown sexual imagery -- one could say a pure Vegas moment -- but it makes the evening's close a bit clumsy. As those pieces deflate and a heart-shaped L, V and E inflate, John returns to the stage and lets the audience know the next tune, "Your Song," is the closer.
Celine Dion had a similar dilemma when she opened the Colosseum and her entourage took bows with no musical accompaniment. It has since been changed. Aside from that minor speed bump, though, it is fascinating how LaChapelle and John's use of the space is so completely different from that of Dion's show. John and band stay put for the bulk of the 95 minutes, as opposed to the movement of Dion and her dancers.

Conceptually, LaChapelle and John ask the audience to view songs in a new light, even if that means disturbing the concertgoer with a ballet to domestic abuse on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" or "Rocket Man" showing 1970s Elton as a beleaguered rock star. John currently is booked for 91 shows over the next three years; he'll do 41 in 2004.Opening-night crowd include Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Barbara Walters, Joy Behar, Pamela Anderson, Christina Aguilera, Kathy Griffin and Sharon Osbourne.