LAS VEGAS — On the stage that French-Canadian power ballads built, Celine Dion rolls her body, drops her hips and shimmies in a gold sparkly mini-dress that looks like it was swiped from Beyoncé's closet.
This is Dion as Tina Turner, her robust voice stretching into a soulful cover of "River Deep, Mountain High" as a row of back-up singers groove behind her during a sound check in the near-empty Colosseum at Caesars Palace. Or at least this is as Tina Turner as the "Beauty and the Beast" crooner is going to get in her Las Vegas sequel.
Dion's new show, opening Tuesday on the Las Vegas Strip, is a stripped-down tribute to Old Hollywood comprised of a 31-person orchestra, a trio of back-up singers and an entourage of guitarists, drummers and a pianist, all clad in black tuxedos and cocktail dresses. Gone are the Cirque du Soleil-style dancers and theatrics that saw Dion harnessed to a cable and flown in the air during her previous, five-year stint at the Colosseum that ended in 2007.
A lot is riding on the encore show. Dion, who gave birth to twin boys nearly five months ago, is tending to an expanded family while trying to mirror or surpass her previous success in a city that has yet to pry itself free from the embrace of a brutal recession.
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Along with her Tina Turner tribute, Dion performed songs made famous by Michael Jackson, Billy Joel and Ella Fitzgerald hours before a preview performance. There was also a mod homage to James Bond and a "Smooth Criminal" jam session.
"From Michael Jackson to James Bond to 'Mr. Paganini,' it's so different, and it's so classy, and it's fun," Dion said of the show. "Different flavor. Different colors of music."
Las Vegas executives herald Dion as the successor to legendary Sin City headliners like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, while praying she'll once more sell out nightly concerts despite the state's record unemployment rates and a sluggish tourist market.Video: Inspired by sons, Dion lights up Vegas (on this page)
Caesars Palace President Gary Selesner said the three-year production is a gamble. Executives questioned reopening the show amid Nevada's 13 percent unemployment, the highest in the nation. Caesars lost $831.1 million last year, or roughly $3.5 million more than its net income in 2009. Nearby, stretches of the Las Vegas Strip are replete with abandoned casino projects. When "A New Day" opened in Las Vegas in 2003, the unemployment rate in Nevada was 5.2 percent.
If anyone can speed up Las Vegas' recovery, however, it is Dion, Selesner said. Ticket purchases have so far exceeded the pace of sales for "A New Day," and executives expect the French-Canadian singer to drive convention business, room rentals, travel to Las Vegas and gambling.
"Certainly, Sinatra was one era. Elvis was another era. I like to think Celine is the next era," Selesner said. "People still want to see the big stars get on the stage and see their hits, and Celine has got some big hits."Story: A dream duet with Celine Dion? Dream on!
Dion said she tries not to dwell on the tall expectations. "There are a lot of people talking to me about that. I am just a singer," she said Saturday in between tending to her newborns and show rehearsals.
"I want people to come and not feel disappointed. That's my most important job," said Dion. "I personally don't think I have anything to do with the economy."
Under her new contract, Celine will perform 70 shows a year starting Tuesday. The show will include the romantic opuses that made Dion an international star, including "Where Does My Heart Beat Now" and "It's All Coming Back to Me Now." It also has Dion singing scat in a parade of sequined gowns with thigh-high slits. The show's set-list was still being tweaked as of Saturday.
"You are going to be exposed to an expanded part of her probably that has always been there but maybe she couldn't do in the last show," said director Ken Ehrlich, who also produced this year's Grammy Awards show.
Dion will likely perform a memorial to the belated Jackson, a longtime musical influence. She said he attended a performance of "A New Day," then probed her about the experience.
"He was probably interested in coming here and performing here," Dion said. "I really wanted to kind of sing a few of his songs to tell people how big of a loss that is for him to not be here any longer."
Jackson wasn't the only A-lister who mulled moving to Sin City after Dion's opening night at Caesars. The show is credited for launching a wave of concert series that recalled Sinatra and Presley in Las Vegas. Since Dion's Caesars stint, the Colosseum has hosted Elton John, Bette Midler, Cher and Jerry Seinfeld.
"More pressure, right?" Dion quipped when told of comparisons being drawn between her and Sinatra. "There is one Sinatra, and there never will be another one. The same thing with everyone else. I want to give the best of me and then I can never be disappointed and say I should have done better."
Before she left to launch a world tour in 2008, "A New Day" grossed more than $400 million over five years.
Caesars spent $95 million to build the Colosseum for Dion in 2003, complete with a humidifier to protect her voice. It seats more than 4,000 people. The show opened to bad reviews, but was a commercial triumph.
Dion was originally expected to start her new show at Caesars in June 2010, but five failed in-vitro fertilization attempts delayed those plans. She delivered twin sons Nelson and Eddy in October, and began rehearsing for her March opening in January as she continued to breastfeed the babies and care for her 10-year-old son with the help of her mother, sister and a nanny.
In that time, Dion also squeezed in a performance at the 83rd Academy Awards last month.
"I didn't think I would be ready after this pregnancy, but everything is smoother than I thought," said Dion, who is living with her brood at Caesars while a nursery is added to her lakeside home outside Las Vegas.
Dion's wide-ranging voice was as ripe as always during a preview performance Thursday at Caesars.
For the opening number, she wore a bedazzled white strapless gown as she belted out Journey's "Open Arms" on a stage dressed in sheer curtains. As she approaching the booming chorus, the curtains dropped to reveal rows of musicians across the stage.
Later in the show, a video showed images of her oldest son blowing out his birthday candles and of the twins being baptized at a Las Vegas church, and performances by a young Dion at the dawn of her career.
A chandelier twinkled above the stage during a performance of "Because You Loved Me," smoke licked at Dion's heels during "All by Myself," and in a haunting mid-concert rendition of Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas," Dion tearfully contemplated the loss of a lover in her native French.
The concert hall swelled at the emotion. Women cried, cheered on their feet and wiped their eyes dry.
"She's got the best voice in the whole wide world," said Naomi Giancola, a Las Vegas ticket vendor and Dion fan. "I don't care what she sings. She's just my No. 1."
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