2018 and the first half of 2019 may have been all about “Shallow” and A Star Is Born, but this year’s second act marks a welcome return of sorts for Lady Gaga — and her latest round of gigs in Las Vegas proved it.
Gaga makes herself at home in many places, from the gutters of the Lower East Side to the front row at the Academy Awards to a technological marvel of a theater on Sin City’s strip. The vehicle for last year’s triumph was her feature film starring role debut in A Star Is Born, and its signature song, “Shallow,” her duet with co-star and director Bradley Cooper, necessitates its own cabinet for the number of statuettes it earned at various ceremonies. The three years leading up to A Star Is Born’s release saw Gaga spending more time on screen — with a featured role in American Horror Story, as well as Five Foot Two, the candid Netflix documentary that followed her up to her 2018 Super Bowl performance — than onstage, in part due to her struggle with chronic pain that led to the cancelation of whole legs of her Joanne World Tour in 2016 and 2017.
Before that, she knelt on the beer-sticky floors of dive bars and, in the case of the Bitter End in New York, swung a leg over the lip of its roof with the territorial confidence of an alley cat, making a point to play these tiny joints before stadiums and arenas to introduce her album Joanne in the fall of 2016. She’s as agile and at ease on a red carpet as she is the basements and lofts she played before anyone knew who she was, and just as comfortable in stadiums and festival fields. (As she did at the Bitter End, she got familiar with the roof of NRG stadium when she launched herself from it and descended upon the Super Bowl halftime show in 2017. She headlined Coachella two months later.)
Vegas may be the only place where the pantless Gaga of Rivington Street days past and the Oscar-touting Gaga of the present can inhabit the same ferociously talented being at the same time — or at least it’s where she has the most fun embracing every shade of her(selves).
This is crystal clear now that A Star Is Born is in the rearview mirror. The first week of June marked Gaga’s return to Vegas for her first run of shows since her awards-season winning streak, and with it comes an acute awareness of the additional space the accolades provide for her to take her art and message far and wide without having to travel the world. She’s relishing in playing whatever she wants, however she wants, on a grand or small scale of her choosing: she’ll sing “Shallow” for you, sure, but she’ll also wail the chorus of “Paparazzi” while careening above the crowd in an egg-shaped wire cage with smoke billowing out the bottom one night, and bring out Tony Bennett to reprise their “Cheek to Cheek” duet in sassy, brassy vintage glory the next. She’s taken to popping up after her own shows at the residency of Brian Newman, her longtime friend and trumpet player in her Jazz & Piano band, who’s taken over the neighboring NoMad’s library bar. Like those who come to see her, Gaga goes to Vegas with the intent of maximalizing her experience — she just gets standing ovations, usually many a night, for doing so.
This is less a return to form and more a refreshment of her roots — a brash, unapologetic, eccentric injection of fun into her regular routine after her earnest and straight-laced time with Cooper and Co. Between her Thursday (June 6) performance of Enigma and Sunday (June 8) Jazz & Piano showing, Gaga teased, ribbed, cackled, wept, consoled and empowered her sold-out audiences. Her banter has never been more mischievous and delightfully unhinged. (She went for the laughs as much as possible with the Jazz & Piano crowd especially, smooching married women in front of their baffled husbands and sparring with “Big Bird,” the giant feathered throw she dragged across the Park Theater’s massive stage.) When she invited a group of middle school kids out to raise awareness for her Born This Way Foundation’s latest effort to bring mental health programs to schools during Enigma, she dedicated “A Million Reasons” to them and proceeded to comfort one crying student who sat down next to her at the piano. She thrives on connection, and though she’s singing other people’s songs for Jazz & Piano and putting on a new, cerulean-haired persona for Enigma, she continues to approach her Vegas concerts with invigorating intimacy — even when she doesn’t have to.
Instead of retreating into the private, cushy swaths of fame in the wake of the most lauded accomplishment of her career to date, she’s getting as close to her fans as she can, and genuinely enjoying the experience she’s engineered for them and herself in the process. It’s a successful exercise that reminds you how vibrant and voracious of a performer she is, and how adventurous and possible creative exploration feels when she’s rolling the dice.