Diva Las Vegas


    Celine Dion was first offered her own Las Vegas show by none other than Colonel Tom Parker. In 1987 Dion's husband and manager Rene Angelil was in Las Vegas to see a Wayne Newton tribute to the Colonel's client, Elvis Presley. "For $5 you could visit the suite at the Hilton where Elvis lived," says Angelil. "So I go, and the Colonel's there selling souvenirs. One of my friends points to me and says, 'Colonel, this guy manages a terrific girl singer.' The Colonel says, 'Who is she?' I say, 'She sings in French, but she's a Barbra Streisand type.' The Colonel gets very serious. He says, 'Let me give you some advice: Never compare your artist to another artist.'''

    Fast-forward to 1994. Dion, now singing in English, had covered Elvis' Can't Help Falling in Love for a Disney Channel special. Soon after, says Angelil, the Colonel called: "He says, 'I've heard that song so many times since Elvis died, and I never heard it like that. I'm a consultant for the Hilton, and she's never played Las Vegas. I want her at the Hilton.'" Angelil told the Colonel that Dion's American career was just taking off and that she wasn't ready for Vegas. "He said, 'I respect that, but this girl could be huge — like Barbra Streisand!' I swear to you," says Angelil, laughing. "I said, 'Colonel, she'll never be Barbra Streisand. She can only be Celine.'"

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    In a few weeks, Dion will play Las Vegas in a show that dwarfs any comparison with Streisand or Presley and makes even the late Colonel's wildest financial fantasies seem tame. On March 25--the same day she releases a new album and appears in a CBS special — Dion will begin a three-year run at Caesars Palace in A New Day, a concert-dance-theater spectacular directed by former Cirque du Soleil mastermind Franco Dragone. In exchange for five shows a week, 40 weeks a year, Dion will get a reported $100 million plus 50% of the profits. She will also have the Colosseum, a brand-new, $95 million, 4,000-seat theater, at her disposal. In return, Caesars Palace, the faded jewel of the Las Vegas Strip, gets some much needed buzz and thousands of nightly guests willing to fork over anywhere from $87.50 to $200 at the box office. "Celine will bring up to a million people a year to the property," says Mark Juliano, president of Caesars Palace. "Because of the ticket pricing, we know they're not afraid to spend a dollar, and we have reconfigured the casino so that we capture every person who goes in and comes out of the theater."

    If Elvis personified the naughty Vegas of the 1970s, Dion is the perfect fit for the cleaned-up, family-friendly mecca of 2003. Her music and persona are scrupulously inoffensive — sometimes just bland. But her voice is a natural wonder of immense range and clarity, the kind of irony-free tourist attraction that the new Vegas adores. Most important, Dion has sold 150 million albums worldwide, making her the biggest female singer of all time and a true marquee draw. Still, even Dion realizes that her voice alone isn't worth a $200 ticket. "That's why this show isn't just me singing," she says. "I am a part of it, but sometimes just a small part."

    The idea for A New Day came to Dion in 2000 when she saw O, Cirque du Soleil's bizarrely beautiful mime-gymnastics-diving show, at the Bellagio hotel. "The second it started," she says, "I was breathtaken. At the end I turned to Rene and said, 'If ever I do a concert again, this is what I want.'" Angelil, who loves his wife only slightly more than his personalized blackjack betting system, said it would be logistically impossible to mount such a complicated show profitably — unless, of course, she was willing to do it in Las Vegas permanently. "Sure enough," says Angelil, smiling, "she said, 'I could live here.'"

    After meeting with Dragone, O's director, and negotiating with three casinos and various producers, Angelil put together a deal at Caesars Palace. Then he and Dion stood back and let Dragone try to create a show out of Dion's songbook. "At first I did not know at all the repertoire of Celine," says Dragone. "I do not listen to this music. It's very pop-ish, so it is not so easy to find a tableau behind the songs. There is not a theme, except love of course."

    Dragone, 50, is a Belgian with the soul of a Frenchman. In conversation his jagged English lurches between profound existential lows ("Sometimes I do not know if the show will work — I do not know how it could") and exuberant, absurdist highs ("That character, he is the moon!"). "There's no light at the end of the tunnel with Franco," says Mia Michaels, A New Day's choreographer. "Most directors I work for say, 'This is what I want — this is how we'll get it.' He's just like 'Whatever you want to do, do it. Create what you feel, and we'll find magic in that.' He has no goal, no end product in mind."

    For five months, Dragone, Dion, Michaels and 54 dancers holed up in La Louviere, Dragone's Belgian hometown, seeking inspiration. When they arrived in Las Vegas in December, only a few details of the show were decided. A New Day would feature a mix of 18 Dion songs and covers, among them such classic Vegas numbers as Fever and I've Got the World on a String. All the backdrops — including Times Square, a train station and a Florentine campo — would be broadcast on a giant $6 million LED screen. There would be a wordless Romeo and Juliet interlude, a tree that would bloom onstage and a flying orchestra. And, yes, there would be a moon character dressed entirely in white. "He illustrates the emotions of the audience," says Dragone. "He is also a baby who has never seen anything."

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