Monochrome does not suit Elton John well. As one of rock's most colorful performers, the mere mention of his name conjures a rainbow of visuals, especially considering the famous video screen that was a key attraction for his first Las Vegas residency that last five years, "The Red Piano." In name alone "The Million Dollar Piano" sounds more vibrant and broader than its predecessor and John has definitely not opted to create a sequel -- this is a wholly new show that owes more to music than the marriage of song and spectacle.
A half-hour longer than "The Red Piano" and oriented more toward John's personal history, "The Million Dollar Piano" was unveiled Wednesday night at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace to a crowd that was appreciative though not consistently enthusiastic. The piano, a Yamaha grand with its lid closed, required four years of construction and includes 68 LED video screens and its side becomes a screen for film footage, animation, decorative designs and bolts of color that complement the set. Like his five other pianos, it is named for a female performer, this one christened Blossom in honor of the late cabaret and jazz singer-pianist Blossom Dearie.
Nineteen songs, 10 of which were in "Red Piano," are performed in two hours in the new show, nearly all of them collaborations with lyricist Bernie Taupin. It is rich in '70s music and lore: The obscurities include "Better Off Dead" and "Indian Sunset" from the early part of the decade; a stream of Elton video images during "I'm Still Standing" celebrate his visits to quirky haberdasheries during the decade; and images of LPs and turntables assist in a few moments of time travel.
With Mark Fisher's set of a Roman arch separated into two pieces and a pair of giant paisley-shaped set pieces, the screen behind John's six-piece band and four backup singers is used to create moods and tell stories. "Rocket Man" is enhanced with the sort of space imagery associated with the Hubble Telescope; "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters," which John has connected with 9/11, is accompanied by recently shot black and white video portraits of New Yorkers. "Tiny Dancer," which gets a simple mauve and black treatment, is among the songs that benefit from Patrick Woodroffe's impressive lighting design which ranges from "Hey Ahab's" acid trip visuals to 60 individual spotlights flooding the stage with light from above on "Bennie and the Jets."
About half the songs have specific video elements, the most clever one accompanying "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." It's a winding animated journey through John's life that starts near the Troubadour nightclub, includes his costumes, Broadway shows and old videos, and closes with a baby and the cover photo of recent album with Leon Russell, "The Union." Assembled, John said, in about four months, the show's set-up is flexible enough that John can swap out out songs if he so desires.
Musically, John is not about to surprise anyone. Backed by his longtime bandmates guitarist Davey Johnstone, drummer Nigel Olsson and, on opening night, percussionist Ray Cooper, John stuck with familiar arrangements and tempos, adding a few frisky piano runs during "Rocket Man" and amplified the gospel element of "Levon" in his throaty vocal and the organ playing of Kim Bullard. The presence of two cellists plus four back-up singers enhanced the humanity of several songs.
Playing the role of a cheerleader, John -- dressed in a dark suit with gold glitter to match his gold shoes -- would get up from his piano bench frequently and pump his fists or encourage a sing-along. He speaks often between songs, specifically celebrating individuals who inspired him - John Lennon, Lech Walesa, Elizabeth Taylor, Nelson Mandela, Ryan White, Leon Russell and his writing partner Bernie Taupin -- with shout-outs. Visually, a cap is tipped to Philadelphia soul pioneers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff on "Philadelphia Freedom." It's a personal show, more restrained than the video-gone-wild vision of David LaChapelle that gave "Red Piano" its character. While that was more hit friendly, "Million Dollar Piano" will be more suitable for anyone who has at any time considered themselves and Elton John fan.
Opening in mid-week certainly limits the celebrity quotient as Neil Patrick Harris was the only Hollywood star making it to the opening. John has 15 shows scheduled between Sept. 30 and Oct. 23 in Vegas before heading to Russia and Down Under. He returns to Las Vegas next year for seven concerts between Feb. 9 and Feb. 18. A handful of tickets are $500 but most of the orchestra is priced at $250. The rest of the 4,300-seat house is $175, $140, $95 and $55.
"The Bitch Is Back"
"Bennie and the Jets"
"Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters"
"Better Off Dead"
"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"
"I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues"
"Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me"
"I'm Still Standing"
"Saturday Night's All Right (For Fighting)"
"Circle of Life"