Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Cher and her sequins settle in at Caesars Place

By Steve Friess, Special for USA TODAY

LAS VEGAS — She floated down on a small, neon-lit platform that descends from the upper reaches of the Caesars Palace Colosseum to reveal her crooning I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For in a shimmering silver and gold gown coated by hundreds of feathers that also crowned her head.

About two hours later, she departed with a rousing, 30-chorus rendition of her over-you anthem Believe in a shredded white rhinestone-encrusted get-up with a headpiece of strings that fall to the small of her back.

And in between, Cher opened her 200-show, three-year run in the Strip's most prestigious theater by serving generous helpings of her multi-era hits in that distinctly nasally, low rumble of a belting voice punctuated by large doses of the ultimate chameleon's nostalgia. The show is already in such high demand that her first four-week run is sold out and additional dates have been added to her next round in August.

Premiere night was a low-wattage event, with a more formal, star-studded official opening to come later this month. Cher's children, Chastity Bono and Elijah Blue Allman, attended, as did Las Vegas Hilton headliner Barry Manilow and retired Vegas illusionists Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Horn.

Instead, the Colosseum was filled with folks like Roni Heinze, 60, and her niece, Kim Alexander, 50, of Seattle, who wore black T-shirts decorated with scanned images of Cher in various looks as well as their ticket stubs from the more than 15 Cher concerts they'd seen. The duo already have tickets to see Cher six times at Caesars, including Wednesday's second-night show, two shows later this month around Cher's 62nd birthday on May 20 and two more in Augustwhen she's back.

"She's just the greatest," said Heinze, who with Alexander had spent $1,500 on this two-night trip. "It's a small price to pay."

On stage, Cher greeted her audience warmly if nervously.

"You guys are first-nighters, so you'll be the first kids on your block to see this," she confided to the sold-out crowd of 4,000 in the theater made famous by Celine Dion and co-occupied these days by Bette Midler and Elton John. "We have things that are so unbelievable — if they work!"

By and large, everything did, although the show ran nearly two hours and is expected to be shorn to a Vegas-standard 90 minutes. Cher barreled with great energy through I Found Someone, All Or Nothing and Love Is A Battlefield, and slowed down appropriately for ballads Love Hurts and Walking in Memphis. A highlight came with the love song After All, for which she arrived on stage standing in a boat wearing a gray, body-length, fur-collared robe and a pointy silver cap standing in a boat. In all, she sang about 17 songs live; at least three were presented entirely in videos during costume changes.

That said, though, Cher's show is far more a straight-up concert than what her counterparts have done with the vast room.

Her band is prominently stationed on the stage throughout, the performer herself leaned over to high-five audience members as she rocked through Song For The Lonely and the show does not build theatrical stories around the songs. At the end, after she sauntered around the stage in the skin-baring black outfit and big black wig associated with her hit If I Could Turn Back Time, the audience is forced to applaud for almost five minutes before she does the predictable encore of Believe. Dion, Midler and John don't do encores.

Indeed, the concert-like sensibility led to some confused expectations. Groups of fans, upon hearing the first strains of If I Could Turn Back Time, raced to the front and into the aisles to dance, only to be directed back to their seats. And, while fan-pleasing, this production borrowed heavily from features from a variety of tours while throwing in such dashes of Vegas elements as aerialists and acrobats doing some sequences also seen in specific Cirque du Soleil shows at neighboring hotels.

Ultimately, the factor driving the ebb and flow here was not the music or Cher's personality but her 15 or so costume changes, usually occurring after just one or two songs at a time. The production felt like a Cher-scored Bob Mackie fashion show, with Cher disappearing repeatedly for minutes at a time to change into yet another outlandish get-up of sequins, rhinestones and bizarre headpieces that also showed plenty of skin. The repeated use of video montages, mostly from her Sonny and Cher days, and lengthy Cher-less dance routines that included a rendition of YMCA complete with Village People impersonators to encouraging the audience to play along, prompted grumbles from audience members who had paid in many cases more than $300 a seat. (An obvious vertical tear in one of the gigantic screens was also distracting.)

But the emphasis on Cher's trademark fashion sense didn't bother Naomi Ryan, 33, of Chicago, who toted with her a decorated sailor's cap to toss on stage during If I Could Turn Back Time, a Cher concert tradition ever since her 1989 video in which the singer dons one on the deck of the USS Missouri.

"There has to be somebody among us who can wear those things, say those things, be that fearless woman," said Ryan as she looked at one of the six Mackie dresses displayed in glass cases outside the theater. "She does things people like me can't. And I love her for that."