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Lionel Richie brings the hits, and a lesson in showmanship

You have your favorite Lionel Richie songs and I have mine. But now I have my favorite Lionel Richie jokes, too. And I like some of them even better than some of his songs.

In fact, opening night of Richie’s Planet Hollywood showcase, “All the Hits,” may be the first time I made sure the star had quit talking and started singing before heading up the Axis theater steps for a restroom break. (The line there suggested a lot of other dudes agreed “My Destiny” was a song they could skip).

No one is going to argue the body of songs that back up the title: A set list of ’70s and ’80s Commodores and solo hits so steeped in our culture that a bunch of country singers remade them, for the “Tuskegee” tribute album four years ago.

Or, as the man himself explained, “These are songs I’m gonna do that you can’t go to work, you can’t go to play, you can’t go anywhere unless you’re going to sing with me in the car.”

See what I mean about the talking?

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Some of the jokes were pre-loaded, such as Richie saying he wished men would quit telling him about “the number of times I made love to you.”

Others might have been more custom. Returning to the same theater, once the Aladdin, where the Commodores played in 1978, Richie told Wednesday’s crowd he once “looked off this stage and everyone had the same Afro I had.”

The showman, who turns 67 in June, beamed with radiance as bright as his red jacket, and his contagious enthusiasm didn’t wait for laggards. “Everybody up!” he commanded for “Brick House.”

He teed up the big sing-along chorus for “Sail On” in midsong: “Are you ready? One … two … three …”

And if you think he’s going to stay seated at that grand piano for the entirety of “Easy,” then you best just get yourself over to an Elton John show.

Richie had said in a Review-Journal interview, “It’s the banter in between that makes the night special. That’s the thing called entertaining.”

The slightly older Elton John and Rod Stewart wouldn’t argue, but their Las Vegas shows do let the songs speak more for themselves. But those guys have a more diverse-sounding catalog, too.

Some of the Commodores jams represented in “All the Hits” were written or co-written by bandmates. The Richie-penned ballads, group or solo, tend to start out the same way on the piano before becoming more recognizable in the chorus.

Richie worked even that to his advantage when he tied together three of the piano ballads — “Still,” “Oh No” and “Stuck On You” — with a fun linking narrative about how romantic entanglements used to send the heartbroken home to their albums, or CDs, or 8-tracks, or cassettes, to “call upon Lionel Richie.”

Richie had teased the possibility of Las Vegas enabling some added production frills, but they were sparse and largely unnecessary: a pair of aerialists for “Dancing on the Ceiling,” a giant mirror ball for “Hello,” fire pots shooting up flames when “Brick House” briefly detoured into the Ohio Players’ “Fire.”

And he still has just a five-piece band, with no extra backup singers who don’t play instruments (The band being all dudes helps explain why Richie chose to sing “Endless Love” with all the ladies in the house).

Rock guitarist Ben Mauro made “Easy” and some of the other ballads a little less so. But the quintet’s real time to amp up was a Commodores medley that flipped on the ’70s boogie for “Fancy Dancer” and “Lady (You Bring Me Up).”

It all played like the kind of show Las Vegas used to be known for; so familiar you had to remind yourself Richie has been a rare commodity on the Strip before this commitment, which runs through May 18 and brings him back in September.

Better late than never, of course. And any marginal fans are likely to not just tell their friends, but come back as repeat customers after Richie’s evangelical sales job.

This, after all, is the guy who steps up to the pointed thrust of the stage while he is singing “Truly,” puts his hands on his hips and declares, “And forever, I will be your lover.”

Can you doubt him? You just try.

Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com and follow @Mikeweatherford on Twitter.

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