Celine Dion sets a new standard for Vegas flash

She will sing and swing strapped in a harness

March 20, 2003|By Paul Brownfield | Paul Brownfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LAS VEGAS - On Jan. 1, 2000, the story goes, Celine Dion, exhausted from touring and wanting to be a stay-at-home wife and mother, came to Las Vegas with her manager-husband and 250 of their family and friends. The couple renewed their wedding vows. They also saw O, the Cirque du Soleil spectacular on water at the Bellagio, and so moved and flabbergasted was Dion that she came to an inevitable conclusion: She wanted one for herself.

She's getting one. In A New Day, which is what her new Vegas extravaganza is called, Dion, strapped to a harness, soars 50 feet in the air, to the top of the gargantuan proscenium, as she belts out the love ballad "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."

It seems safe to say Barbra Streisand wouldn't try this once, much less 200 times a year, which is what Dion is contracted to do. She will perform five nights a week for the next three years, in a 4,100-seat theater built for her by Caesars Palace. Her dressing room in the Colosseum is 2,600 square feet, with a formal dining room.

Dion's not getting her own circus, but something dreamier - a show "by Dragone." That's Franco Dragone, the Belgian conjurer behind O and Mystere in Vegas and eight other Cirque shows that have either toured or played permanently somewhere in the world.

It is Vegas as the new diva idyll: all the glory and money of touring without the air miles. Rene Angelil, who was guiding Dion's career long before he married her, hints that other pop stars are enviously watching what he has engineered for Dion - guaranteed millions in an industry whose sales aren't what they used to be.

Amid all the hype, there remains the possibility that the show will flop, to the delight of Dion haters, or simply run out of gas, vindicating those on the Strip who see this as a vanity act backed by fuzzy math.

Tickets for A New Day start at $87.50 and climb to $200 - tops for a permanent show in Vegas, but not insanely high by today's standards.

Though Las Vegas night life still evokes Elvis Presley's period of drug-addled bloat and plates of $9.99 prime rib, multinational corporations now control the Strip, and Dion's show, like so much of popular entertainment, represents the merging interests of big money.

A New Day opens Tuesday, timed to the release on Sony's Epic label of Dion's latest album, One Heart, and her own perfume, called Celine Dion. CBS is airing a Dion special that night. Chrysler, for whom Dion recently appeared in slick black-and-white commercials with her 2-year-old son, Rene-Charles, is a presenting sponsor of the Vegas show, and AEG Live, the live entertainment arm of Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz's empire, fronted the money to get the production up and running, to the tune of $40 million, several sources said.

Park Place Entertainment, the corporation that owns Caesars Palace and four other properties on the Strip, has boasted that it shelled out $95 million to build Dion's theater - even though Caesars won't be getting any revenue from ticket sales.

Instead, Park Place is gambling that A New Day will draw some 20,000 patrons a week to Caesars, injecting new life into a casino that has been eclipsed by higher-end competitors like Bellagio and Mandalay Bay.

With Dion as muse, Dragone has created a new genre of entertainment: the fanciful evocation of a diva, contrived for an audience Dragone refers to as "deep America."

He has found the perfect singer to hoist 50 feet in the air. Dion, as her admirers and detractors know, is a big singer - heart on the sleeve at all times.

There are seven songs with the word "love" in the title in her set list for "A New Day." Predictably, there is a combination of her melodramatic hits, torch songs and crowd-pleasers - "My Heart Will Go On," the love theme from Titanic; the Louis Armstrong classic "What a Wonderful World"; the French ballad "Je t'aime Encore."

There is no story, but there will be plenty to look at - what people behind the scenes cryptically call "pure Franco": flying musical instruments, trees that come from beneath the stage and blossom. And, of course, the moon, a giant moon. It appears on the show's most spectacular set piece, a high-definition movie screen that is 34 feet by 110 feet, a $6-million piece of technology that provides the show's various three-dimensional backdrops, or tableaux.

"This is the cherry on the cake," Dion said. "If I want to eat it, it's now or never."

Paul Brownfield writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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