It’s hard to decipher whether Robbie Williams is self-aggrandizing or self-conscious or both.
The British pop star keeps reminding us of how big he is around the world, but is quick to add, “I’m big everywhere — except for here!”
That line is even in the song that opens Williams’ shows at Encore Theater at Wynn Las Vegas, the Robbie Williams National Anthem, “He is totally global, except in the U.S. of A.”
Williams is an international star who has sold 77 million records — a force of nature even — and is using his residency at the Wynn to gain a toehold on this country.
“Tell your friends about me, please!” he said, repeatedly, so OK. Friends, Robbie Williams puts on a terrifically entertaining show at Encore Theater. It’s a fun experience because Williams is talented, he commits and he has ample thought and seemingly limitless energy behind his vision of a Las Vegas show.
Williams’ view of a Strip production plucks from every Las Vegas cliche over the past 60 years or so. But that’s great — we sure enjoy the spirited postcard roll-out of vintage-Vegas images, the requisite oversized dice, the overhead shots of the Strip, videos of playing cards adorned with Williams’ face and the octet of backing dancers dressed as showgirls.
Williams showed up for his news conference Tuesday at Lakeside Restaurant in what looked like a shirt splashed with Las Vegas images that you’d buy at Bonanza Gift Shop. He expanded that look Wednesday with a blinged-out black jacket, followed by a similarly styled half-trench coat and later a tangerine-colored suit bedecked with a pink boa.
The music hearkened to the headier days of the Rat Pack, no surprise because Williams is especially enamored of Dean Martin. We got a full run of “Ain’t That a Kick in The Head,” “That’s Life” and, with just piano accompaniment, “Mr. Bojangles.” But Williams also pulled from other legendary Vegas shows — the parade of showgirls of “Jubilee!” and “Folies Bergere” and the campy but musically superior showmanship of Liberace.
Williams even brought up his father, famed British singer/stand-up Pete Conway, for a sing-along of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
Williams spoke lovingly of the city, saying, “This is the most important gig I have played in a long time.”
He zealously said the Wynn hotel was on the very same spot as the Sands (not quite, but the audience went with it).
Williams dutifully, and beautifully, sang “My Way” near the end, same as Elvis and Sinatra, and customized the lyrics of “New York, New York” to use “Vegas, Vegas!” as the refrain.
Backed by a muscular backing band with a horn section and swaying backing singers, Williams is a front man entirely in control of his surroundings. He strode in to the crowd to croon and pose for selfies and brought a woman up on a red-velvet couch for “Somethin’ Stupid.”
What was lacking, especially among Williams’ international fans (who complained about the set list on my social media posts), was a high complement of his hits. The counter from a U.S. or Vegas-tourist audience is, we don’t recognize his songs.
I had not known of anything Williams performed at Encore Theater, outside of the classics, and that is for good reason. Williams has not headlined in Las Vegas before this run. We don’t know him too well. But he can bring it. He’s a natural performer and giddy to be performing his life’s passion in a Vegas theater.
This show really reminds me of my other favorite Vegas residency show so far this year: Lady Gaga’s “Jazz & Piano” at Park Theater (and also of Gwen Stefani’s blazing, ode-to-“Jubilee!” opening in her production at Zappos Theater). In these instances, the artists embrace classic sentiments and the rich history of Las Vegas performances with individual panache.
They prove you can stamp your own originality on existing material, if you command enough courage and imagination.
Williams wants to be a fixture in Las Vegas, even asking about the city’s best restaurants after his Tuesday session with the media. His consistence presence on the entertainment scene would be fine with me. See Williams do his thing and tell your friends. There’s a new showman in town.
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts.Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.