Elton John's 'Million Dollar Piano' more genuine, sentimental

If Elton John's office didn't get a memo from Caesars Palace for electrocuting the naked transgender model the last time, he probably won't hear from them about singing "Indian Sunset" now.

The pop-rock legend's new Colosseum at Caesars Palace showcase, "The Million Dollar Piano" is almost the opposite of the last one, "The Red Piano."

That five-year run was something of a mixed blessing for fans. At roughly half the running time for roughly twice the price of his concerts outside Las Vegas, "Red" was a rigid 95 minutes in which the star took a back seat to David LaChapelle's audacious video imagining of his catalog.

The new effort is a two full hours, allowing John to perform more as he does on the road and stray from the hits for a couple of deep album cuts. The video has been demoted mostly to graphics that serve the larger stage design, and often seem deliberately generic so he can change up the song list.

The producers seem to have relaxed and agreed to let Elton be Elton, instead of worrying so much about its Colosseum headliners delivering a unique product weighted toward casual-fan tourists.

Fear not, the hits were in abundance on opening night Wednesday. John repeated at least half of the "Red Piano" essentials, from the show-opening "The Bitch is Back" to the audience joining in the obligatory romps through "Crocodile Rock" and "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting."

And yet, the whole thing feels different. Gone are the campy sexual inflatables and LaChapelle's tarnished-grotesque visions of beauty. This night is more genuine and sentimental, fine for the whole family -- John didn't even cuss on opening night -- and much more about the music.

It turns out "The Million Dollar Piano" is so named (well, John actually named it "Blossom," for Blossom Dearie) because the grand piano side, which faces the audience, is one big video display. This musical TV lights up with everything from Versace designs to the old "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" duet with Kiki Dee.

The piano's graphics usually blend with the flanking scenery, which has a larger purpose: It's whimsical enough in mashing up the Roman kitsch of Caesars Palace with Eltonian cherubs and keyboards, but really serves to close down the enormous stage for most of the show.

John's five-piece core band has been expanded to include two cellists (Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser, who perform as 2Cellos) to punch the string arrangements of early hits, and four female singers that include Rose Stone of Sly & The Family Stone fame.

But the most prominent addition is Ray Cooper, who for decades has occasionally joined the star for odd duets in which he runs amuck at a riser full of tuned percussion.

Their breakdown of the cinematic "Indian Sunset" (from "Madman Across the Water") was the high point of Wednesday's show, partly because it came during an acoustic set in which John switched from shouting to singing.

The 64-year-old star seems to get more barking and tone deaf as his band gets louder, perhaps because he can't hear himself. No biggie for "Bennie and the Jets," but it kind of sapped the nuance from "Levon" and "Tiny Dancer." Perhaps that's more a technical issue, because the singing was better, and the band not so overpumped, after the acoustic middle section.

Longtime fans -- and that's a wide base -- will appreciate that John wandered beyond the edges of essential hits to include "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" as a shout-out to the spirit of New York, "Blue Eyes" as an Elizabeth Taylor tribute and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" for one of the few notable videos, a computer-animated trip down the "road" of his own career.

Most of the song list landed squarely in the 1970s, with only "The Lion King" encore "Circle of Life" and "Hey Ahab" (from last year's "The Union" with Leon Russell) acknowledging the past couple of decades. No loss, as much of that time was focused on John as celebrity, the public losing sight of the seriousness that balances the glitzy silliness.

This show started with an Elvisy "2001" overture and the star waltzing out in a Liberace cape. But every minute from then on -- and hopefully, for the rest of this three-year Caesars commitment -- seemed a sincere attempt to preserve an amazing legacy.

A couple of practical details should concern cash-strapped consumers. For those pondering balcony tickets, there were no live-time video close-ups of the star until near the end, when the giant rear screen went Cinerama-size with him at the piano on "Crocodile Rock."

And after he bounced off his piano bench a few times in the "Bitch" opening, John stayed rooted there for most of the rest of it. Media types were seated in the center section for a straight-on view. But it appeared that in lieu of video close-ups, most people seated on the theater's far left (as you walk in) would be looking at his back nearly the whole time.

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