Never let it be said that Elton John doesn’t have a sense of humor. His highly-anticipated return to Caesars Palace Colosseum began with his longtime band playing the opening to “The Bitch Is Back,” as the superstar swanned onstage in a bejeweled cape so sparkly and bright that even Liberace would have had to think twice about donning it.
“The Million Dollar Piano,” as opposed to “The Red Piano” — the title of his previous five-year run at Caesars that ended in 2008 — travels down much of the same yellow brick road musically as its predecessor, but it veers off the beaten path in a way that is sure to satisfy longtime fans. “Red” contained wall-to-wall hits. “Million,” so named because John’s piano allegedly cost $1 million and took nearly four years for Yamaha to manufacture, is also hit-driven, but in the middle of the two-hour show, John delved deep into his estimable catalog, pulling out such chestnuts as 1971’s “Indian Sunset” (perhaps best known in the U.S. as a sample source for Tupac Shakur’s posthumous 2004 hit “Ghetto Gospel”), “Honky Chateau’s” “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” and “Better Off Dead” from “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.”
John’s entertaining, enthusiastic performance kicked into overdrive in the last half-hour, starting with the rollicking, piano-pounding “Hey Ahab,” from his underrated 2010 album with musical hero Leon Russell, “The Union,” before careening through “I’m Still Standing,” “Crocodile Rock” and “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.”
Visually, the show, which will have a three-year run, has gotten a tremendous facelift. The set of “The Red Piano” featured neon signs and a large screen for the mini-movies that photographer-director David LaChapelle created for nearly each song. The set for “The Million Dollar Piano,” designed by Mark Fisher, replicates a Roman bridge with movable ornate golden half-arches on either side — so elaborate that they contain bas-reliefs of John’s two cocker spaniels, Arthur and Marilyn. (The only obvious opening night production flaw? The lights on the arch stage left went rogue, often blinking on their own). Some of the band members and four female backup singers — who were largely underutilized — are positioned on a riser, and above them is another riser for percussionist and longtime John cohort Ray Cooper, whose movements are so flamboyant that he turns the simple act of hitting a tambourine into a major event.
Behind all that was a massive screen that projected state-of-the art images for almost every tune, whether it be the colorful, Peter Max-like short films for “Philadelphia Freedom” or the beautifully-rendered animated timeline of John’s life that plays behind “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and ends, sweetly, with a photo of John’s new baby boy. Other scenes are more abstract, such as baroque hallways and chandeliers that appear to move closer, as if in 3D. At times, the wild kaleidoscope of images borders on sensory overload, leading to a distracting, kitchen-sink effect.
Near the end, when almost all of the bells and whistles go away during “Crocodile Rock” and the screen is projecting only John and his band playing, as well as the obligatory audience shots, the take-away is that for all “The Million Dollar Piano’s” excesses, after five decades, John needs absolutely none of it to work his musical magic.