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Olivia Newton-John no bad girl, and that’s good


My seat for Olivia Newton-John’s show just happened to be right behind the Flamingo’s longer-tenured headliner, Marie Osmond. It was seeing them both in the same line of vision that I’ll blame for briefly thinking the two roommates illustrated the difference between a “singer” and an “entertainer.”

The thought didn’t stick for long. The Australian pop legend’s “Summer Nights” — which will be rotating in for Donny &Marie on select weeks until August — turned out to be the very definition of crowd-pleaser, even if her role is basically to stand and sing the songs people came to hear.

It’s not the star’s fault if “understated,” “polite” and “tasteful” are descriptives that have been so missing from most Vegas shows of late, they could be construed as put-downs.

I’m pretty sure Newton-John fans have given up on the 65-year-old transforming from the “nice girl” to the “bad girl” as she does in “Grease.”

But if Marie Osmond never gave up on that notion and likes to swing around on a jungle gym in black leather? We embrace it within our long tradition of Vegas headliners as showmen, who break a sweat and take over-the-top chances that can make our quaint little berg synonymous with bad taste.

Newton-John said herself in an interview that she’s not a “razzmatazz” performer. But not long into this by-the-numbers retrospective, I realized she is an entertainer. At least if you define one as someone who knows her audience, and doesn’t try to mess with them.

So here it is: a relaxed 90-minute showcase with a sparkling white set and crisp backing ensemble, and a tone perfectly spelled out by the title of the opening tune, 1975’s “Have You Never Been Mellow.”

Almost every song that followed was a hit, even some you had forgotten (if you would have been crushed not to hear “Sam,” please take a seat right up front).

And there was no compressing them into medleys, a performer’s way of saying “I’m sick of these songs.” So the “Xanadu” segment was a three-song trilogy of the title track, “Magic” and “Suddenly,” the latter a duet with Steve Real stepping out from the background singers.

“Do you guys like country music?” she said. Anyone who thinks a Taylor Swiftian bridge between country and pop is a new phenomenon was whisked back 40 years. Newton-John’s breakthrough hits “If Not for You,” “Let Me Be There” and “Please Mr. Please” were presented as an acoustic breakdown, with the star perched on a stool in a bedazzled cowboy hat and gradually joined by more singers and players.

The breakdown segment ended with, hmmm, a familiar melody. Just as we started to smile in recognition at the first verse, thinking, “Ah, this is how she confronts the video at her present age,” the singer raised a hand to halt the song. “I kind of think I like it the old way,” she proclaimed. “Shall we do it the old way?”

And so followed the regular version of “Physical,” which somehow stayed as tasteful and age-appropriate as the rest of the show, any campiness confined to the iconic video being projected above the stage.

Oops. I just gave away the show’s biggest surprise. And if there is a drawback to the “musical journey” through the singer’s career to the inevitable minimusical of “Grease” hits, that’s it.

Wayne Harrison, the director who helped the vocal quartet Human Nature make the jump to its current showcase at The Venetian, said last year, “The greatest element we have in the theater is surprise. Part of our job is to keep one step ahead of them.”

Newton-John’s show is more like the first, more predictable version of Human Nature at the Quad.

Left turns were so few that I otherwise wouldn’t count a pair of oft-covered standards — “Cry Me a River” and “Send in the Clowns” — which played the maturity card in Newton-John’s favor, making fine use of the deeper vocal register that comes with age. They also gave the star a chance to talk a bit about her early career roots in the duo Pat &Olivia, revealing this future health nut actually took up smoking to sound more like Julie London.

It was “Not Gonna Give Into It,” a song she wrote during her 1992 breast cancer battle, which offered a musical change of pace with its Brazilian-jazz piano and flute. Not to hit a casino crowd with anything too heavy, she quickly set up the song as “my anthem” without much further elaboration.

Beyond some amusing patter and jokes, the star was content to let most of the reminiscences unfold in nostalgic photos, turning the 1978 hit “A Little More Love” into a chronological biography on the video screens.

Chances are, most Flamingo audiences will be happy enough just to get to the extended “Grease” business and see the star in a vintage jacket, conducting the crowd in a sing-along of the musical that will keep her forever frozen at 28.

If you expect anything more ambitious from the forever “nice girl” at this point, well that would just be mean.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.