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Gaming Guru

Joe Brown

Dion, Vegas parting - but not forever

14 December 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- You really had to be there. After all, you had five years to do it - three years more than anyone ever expected.

But if for some reason you weren't one of the 3 million people who made it to Celine Dion's spectacular "A New Day ..." at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, you can catch one of the last two shows tonight or tomorrow.

If you've got the cash and the connections. That's a big if.

Or you can watch it on the newly released five-hour double DVD "Celine Dion: A New Day - Live in Las Vegas" (released this week and packaged along with Dion's perfume for the full sensory experience). It includes an entire concert performance, filmed in January in high definition, with 19 songs.

Or you can fork over $12.50 Monday night at the Regal Village Square Stadium 18 in Las Vegas, one of hundreds of movie theaters simulcasting a recently videotaped concert performance. (The 300-seat movie theater is already sold out, but you might get lucky.)

The ending of Dion's reign - an unprecedented five-year residency at the Colosseum - is like the passing of a presidential era. The venue was famously custom-built at a cost of $95 million for the performer, who has sold more than 200 million copies of her 25 albums in French and English. Dion has been a magnet (and a magnate), drawing celebrities and helping refresh the Las Vegas image, and a vibrant local microeconomy has sprung up around her.

Having taken in more than $400 million at the box office and in merchandise, the production employs hundreds - the 50 dancers, musicians and others visible onstage are just the tip of the iceberg. Before Dion's show, the adjacent Celine Dion Boutique is bustling, clearly one of the busier stores in the high-end Appian Way mall. The boutique, which offers Dion-branded items from fragrances to holiday ornaments, will close Jan. 2.

The fevered brainchild of Dion, 39, and director Franco Dragone, the show combines images that bring to mind works by Cecil B. DeMille, Busby Berkeley, Henri Magritte, Salvador Dali, Bob Fosse, Robert Wilson and Pee-wee Herman. As a theatrical event it leaves you overentertained, with 90 minutes of Dion's maudlin, masochistic anthems, iconic stances and gestures, chest thumps, salutes, back bends and fist-clenched glory notes atop staircases that suddenly materialize. (Also suddenly materializing, in just the second number of the evening: tuxedoed and tutu-ed dancers, spiny aquatic angel creatures, flaming chandeliers and a host of enigmatic Cirque du Soleil creatures.)

Just when you're semistunned into spectacle-shock, waiting with slack-jawed how-they-gonna-top-that awe for the inevitable elephant or maybe monster trucks or Led Zeppelin, Dion appears to burst into flames.

But it's way too late for another review of this show.

In fact, it's 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, an hour or so after Dion finishes the first beat of the 4-3-2-1 countdown of the final week's performances.

Ensconced in her suite of offices under the stage, Dion has already checked in on her 7-year-old son, Rene-Charles, at home, called her doctor and entertained two meet-and-greet groups. The cozy room, burnt orange in color, decorated with West Elm furniture and those Anne Geddes flower-baby photographs, is redolent of Christmas. Everywhere there are dozens of tiny evergreens, red candles and vases stuffed with crimson roses and hydrangea. There's time for one more conversation before she calls it a night.

"Do you mind if I munch an orange?" Dion asks as she delicately peels the fruit while nestled on a couch. (She eats!) She's still in her smoky-sparkly stage makeup, honey-toned hair pulled up, legs tucked beneath her in a black smock, sheer stockings and heels.

She seems understandably tired, but serene and kind and alert, not a trace of divatude (though make no doubt about it, her bodyguards are world-class).

Dion was uncharacteristically late for her 8:30 p.m. curtain, and the sold-out crowd of 4,000 even started amiably stomping and clapping. Dion wryly apologized for the delay after a few songs, but didn't really tell what made her late. In the hour before showtime there was a costume fitting for the upcoming world tour, European promotional spots to be videotaped and a wheelchair-bound Make-A-Wish kid eager for a visit. Staffers were racing around with iPhones while some of the show's 50 dancers clustered around concert posters, writing well-wishing notes in gold ink.

Then Dion's husband-manager, Rene Angelil, 66, came racing in just before showtime. He had just won $1.6 million at a poker tournament at Caesars. "It's incredible that this happened three days before we're leaving. We've been here five years," Angelil says. "Poker is my passion."

"I'm so happy for him," Dion says. She's heard the rumors around town - that the show had to be extended to cover Angelil's gambling losses - and shrugs them off. "Honestly, my husband is a gambler," she whispers in her still strongly French-accented English. "But he's smart. Poker is his game. A long time ago, he used to play every game - craps and blackjack and everything - but that's too crazy. Vegas is wonderful for him," she says and knocks wood. "And I'm glad he's a gambler, because he's taken only gambles in his life. From mortgaging his home to make me sing, to moving us here."

Dion says she loves living and working in Las Vegas. "All people talk about is the gambling and the girls, the clubs. Once you live here, there's so much beauty and there's a life here. People who know me - I'm not talking about the singer - know what a family-oriented person I am. Do you think I would have moved here if it would have put my family's life in jeopardy?

"I know people say," and she whispers in a derisive, gossipy tone, " 'You know Rene's a big gambler and they're going to Vegas?' " She continues in her near whisper, " 'She's going to be in Las Vegas for three years? Normally people finish their careers there.' Well, I'm glad we went for it."

She says Vegas has been an ideal place to indulge her own vice: "I love shopping. I live and work next to a shopping mall - what does that mean?" she says, and laughs. "But what I wanted was to have stability for my family. My son was a year old when we moved here. He learned how to walk and crawl and potty-train and swim here. When I had this baby in my arms for the first time, I didn't even want to come back in the industry. I didn't want to sing."

Dion and her family live in Lake Las Vegas, about 35 minutes from her workplace. "The Strip doesn't exist there," she says. She insists she's a hometown kind of girl - she has even been known to stop and pick up a sack of chili dogs from Hot Dog Heaven on her way home.

As this era of her Dion-asty comes to a close, her main focus is on keeping it together for these final performances. "I'm really trying to remain very strong," she says. "Because I'm not sad. I'm just very, very emotional. A lot of us (in the stage company) are going on tour, we're looking for another thing to work on. But a lot of the guys, they're not all coming ..." Her voice trails off sadly. She gets teary when asked to dash off a farewell note to Las Vegas on a piece of her show's stationery.

Any advice for Bette Midler, who moves into the Colosseum on Feb. 20 for a projected two-year, five-night-a-week stand?

"(Midler) said, 'Is there anything I should know?' And I said, 'Make them fix the stage for you - flatten that stage.' I told her I did warm up the stage for her. It's ready to go."

You'd think Dion would give herself a break after her emotionally and physically draining long run. "Who told you that, the big winner?" she snorts in an "as if" tone. "Yes, we have a month off from this show, but it's a month of rehearsals for the next one," which is a yearlong, 19-country tour. "But I'm not complaining. I like to work hard.

"I kind of took on this world tour for my mom and my son," she says. "Sounds weird, eh? I want my son to see the world and I want to be with him to see that. And my mom is 80 - touring the world with them is like a gift of life we're giving each other."

The world tour, she says, is going to feature the new album, "Taking Chances," and "of course the previous songs that people want to hear, 'Titanic' and 'Because You Loved Me' and all those songs. I'm glad that I have this problem - that I have to keep singing them. It's a good problem to have."

Dion has hired director-choreographer Jamie King, who staged Madonna's two most recent tours, including the one with the controversial mirrored crucifix. "He's young and it will be a fresh approach for me. It's going to move more. Because I've never really had a lot of up-tempo songs in my life."

She flirts openly with rock and club pop on the new CD, and some critics have pointed out that Dion seems to be nipping at her younger competitors in the pop world - Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Shakira. There are even a few Britney-esque moans and groans.

The songs will form the blueprint for her new show, "but they also tell the story of my childhood," she says.

"People think it's an edgy and new approach - there's nothing new about it," she insists. "It's new compared to what I've been doing, which was maybe softer, but when I pay attention, I don't remember having such a good time recording an English album. I could see myself at the kitchen table when I was 5 and my brothers and sisters" - she had 13 siblings growing up in Charlemagne, Quebec - "playing Janis Joplin, Doobie Brothers, Creedence in the basement of the house and I could hear ..." She pounds the beat on the couch for emphasis.

"I could not believe that the songwriters finally sent me that type of music," she says, spiraling into a miniswoon about the recent changes in her music. "I was so happy. It's edgy. I'll be 40. My husband is a mature man, my son is growing - I don't want to start my career again. I want to enjoy it."

Dion's show has raised the bar for Vegas concerts.

"I think Vegas changed me. I don't want to have the pretension to say that I changed Vegas," Dion says. "I think Vegas was ready to evolve, and I arrived at the same time. But when I came here, nothing was a sure thing. We came because we believed in Franco and the show and the dancers and we got attached to each other. And then the success, people were coming night after night, year after year."

It's almost time to say goodbye.

"I'm not leaving," she whispers urgently. "And I'm not moving," she emphasizes, looking around at her personalized, penthouse-styled warren of offices and conference rooms. "Just to clean my stuff here, all the crystal flowers and teddy bears and pictures that my fans give me ... We started to pack it up, and I told Rene, 'This is Rene-Charles' home, he learned how to walk here. This is his childhood house. There's no way I'm packing.' "

Asked about a return to the Colosseum stage, she says, " 'A New Day ...' will not come back, no. I'm going on tour and if Vegas wants me again, I'm not saying no. I don't want to talk about three or five years from now where I'll be, but if they want me, I'd be honored to."