Elton John

At first it has the dread of “Vegas Elvis, The Final Years” written all over it.

And, unless he changes his mind, this is indeed the beginning of the end of Elton John’s “The Red Piano,” the pop legend’s audacious custom-tailored show for Caesars Palace. Already there’s a countdown campaign on the posters: Only five more engagements — two of them this summer — before a scheduled finale in April.

“The Red Piano” now fits like a well-worn pair of sequined glasses. As the star reaches into a champagne bucket for a water bottle, he notes this particular night is “the 190th show, I think — but who’s counting?” He even hangs onto his Celine Dion jokes, though he now has to place them in the past tense. “I really do miss her,” he adds.

The show starts, as always, with white-coveralled roadies unveiling the stage. A rhythm builds to the entrance of the band, then the star himself, who signals the familiar crashing chords to “Bennie and the Jets.”

And it sounds barkingly awful. At least in the singing department; the piano’s always good. The waistcoat with tails also fails to hide evidence that John hasn’t made big gains in a weight-control battle that, he later tells the crowd, has gone on nearly his whole career.

No, things aren’t off to a dazzling start. Before long, though, you’re at ease in the hands of a master. Elton has done this 20 years longer than Elvis had the chance to. He knows a thing or two about putting on a show. And now, as always, this star knows how to work within his limitations. Once, as the biographical videos remind us, he turned an impossible nerdiness into the heights of glittery ’70s-rock godlihood.

Now, with time having taken much of the singer’s vocal range, he wrings what remains for pure drama. And he doesn’t try to disguise it, as you’re thinking will be the case when bandmates cover the “Daniel, you’re a star” falsetto on “Daniel.” But the very next song is “Rocket Man,” where he lays the first verse bare to piano, letting the deep-chest vocal resonate with the timbre of an old blues man.

“Daniel” also makes clear to the audience that this show’s real departures are David LaChapelle’s visuals and art direction. On the road, Elton John concerts are still exhaustively long affairs. This one is only 95 minutes, but you get sexually suggestive inflatables and new insights into the music.

As one of several videos created expressly for the large screen at the Colosseum, “Daniel” completes the story left vague in the ’70s, when, the singer tells the crowd, he cavalierly crossed out the last verse in Bernie Taupin’s lyrics. This is “The Red Piano” in a nutshell: He doesn’t go so far as to perform the long-missing verse. But you get a very stylish movie to tell the tale of a soldier’s death.

By “Rocket Man,” however, you realize LaChapelle gives more than he takes away. It’s a moment never seen in Las Vegas entertainment: The battered but still viable star seated at the piano in front of a hypnotically long video depicting his younger self (played by Justin Timberlake) at the height of 1975 backstage madness.

LaChapelle usually adds another dimension to familiar hits such as “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” The videos often hijack the live performance of the song, but only occasionally fail to reconnect at some point. The worst offender is the transgressively kinky video of a suicide death dream for “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (which sort of defies the title), featuring a dancing “Sugar Bear” and LaChapelle’s transgender muse, Amanda Lepore, being electrocuted while pasty-white naked. Hate it or love it, you’ve never seen anything like this in the long history of Las Vegas entertainment. Especially not on a 120-foot screen.

Right after this comes a very well-timed break from the video screen, as John and the band make “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” the one-and-only song with no visuals. It’s a nice change, and would have been welcome when the show debuted in 2004.

There’s one more moment, right after the dazzling “Pinball Wizard” video, when the star tries to steal attention back from the screen and the blow-up toys. He puts one foot up on the piano and one foot on the bench, strikes a pose and then does his famous vault kick from the keyboard. Unfortunately, much of the crowd is distracted by a giant Pamela Anderson coming on the screen for “The Bitch Is Back.”

Whichever one you end up noticing, the singer or the visuals, both of them still hold up.

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

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