Here is something you’d place a bet on after seeing Janet Jackson’s new Las Vegas residency: She has been putting in a lot of hours on the treadmill. Not that we get to see how well-toned she is or isn’t, since she’s practically overdressed for the occasion, compared to the other superstar divas who come to town and play the leggy showgirl. But, 30 years after the “Rhythm Nation” tour — which her Vegas residency is being advertised as commemorating, at least in part — she’s clearly still got all that rhythm. Who could ask for anything more? Well, you could ask for stamina, too, and Jackson has also got that, in a 100-minute show that asks at least as much of her as those tours back in the day did.
Her “Metamorphosis” residency opened Friday, the day after the singer’s 53rd birthday, a time in life at which it’s okay to become a little lazy, especially for the rare woman fortunate enough to have given birth after passing the 5-0 mark. We’ve seen younger performers who aren’t up to the determined rigors that a show like this demands, for whatever reasons, like the one who bowed out of her own Park Theater engagement earlier this year and left room for Jackson to step in. (Get well soon, Britney.) So, after you’ve maybe resolved that any “Miss You Much” will be a good “Miss You Much,” what fun it is — at least for those of us who’d passed on recent tours and didn’t know where to set expectations — to see that she hasn’t lost many steps. Actually, at the very beginning of Friday night’s opener, it seemed as if her moves weren’t quite as bold as those of her dozen-plus backup dancers, but soon enough she joined them in admirable sync, as if Jackson were going through her own opening-night metamorphosis of confidence.
One thing the show was kind of advertised as, and most definitely is not, is an autobiographical trip back through history, or self-help Tony Robbins/TED talk. When announced, her residency was described as incorporating her “path to self-love, empowerment, motherhood and activism, amidst the challenges she faced along her personal journey. She encourages her audiences to find their own light within themselves through her Metamorphosis.” There wassome of that, opening night — but, thankfully, only via voiceover during video pieces masking a few costume and set changes. Jackson has never been loquacious on stage, so she’s not about to start indulging in monologs now, unless they’re pre-recorded. The only time she really spoke live and at any length to Friday’s audience (which included guests like Magic Johnson and Queen Latifah) was to point out that she had some emotional recognition remembering that her first stage appearance with the Jacksons in the early ‘70s was at another MGM-branded property down the street. Given how the only awkward moments in Lady Gaga’s “Enigma” residency at this same venue are the ones where she talks with a robot about her own journey of self-discovery, it’s kind of a relief that Jackson stints on the live pep talks here. She lets the sight of her huge tangles of red curls blowing in the artificial wind do the talking. They talk a lot.
Jackson toured a good deal in 2018 and even a little bit into the beginning of this year, so it’d be natural to expect that the “Metamorphosis” shows might be kind of an extension of that “State of the World” tour — especially since she’s not doing a huge number of shows in Vegas; it’s 18 dates spread across May, July and August. But, looking at setlists, it’s evident this is a completely different show, and a very fan-servicing one, packing in at least excerpts of close to 40 songs, with a surprisingly strong emphasis on tunes from the ‘90s and early 2000s that she hasn’t performed in ages, or ever. The show opens with “Empty,” a track from “The Velvet Rope” that was never a part of her tours before, and is soon followed by fan favorite “Trust a Try,” from “All for You,” which hasn’t been brought out since she sang it a handful of times in 2001-02. It’s right about here that Janet cultists will be weepy with gratitude and casual ticket buyers will be wondering if the “Rhythm Nation 30th anniversary” promise on the thousand-foot signboard outside was hooey.
Don’t worry, she’s getting there. It’s a “Let’s Wait A While” kind of night when it comes to the commemorative stampede of 1989/1814 nostalgia. But for much of the show she’s making a calculated decision on where to come down on a critical Vegas residency conundrum: Do you hope that most of the audience is serious fans who flew in for a possibly one-time-only engagement? Or do you assume you’re getting a lot of tourists who really only know the top five singles and not much else? Jackson means to satisfy them all with that nearly 40-song setlist, but she does a huge amount of truncating, too, to squeeze them into not much more than an hour and a a half. Most of the 1986 “Control” album, in particular, is forced into medleys, as it has been on other tours. Better to hear a third or half of those songs than none at all. But it can be frustrating passing through them so lickety-split, and any aspiring songwriters should be making pacts with God that if they’re ever blessed enough to come up with hits as good as “The Pleasure Principle” or “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” they will repay the muse by playing them in their entirety in perpetuity.
But it’s hard to complain about the overall balance of a show that in implicit part reads as “A Tribute to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis” but has about as many healthy chunks devoted to the more updated, modern-clubby sounds of R&B. When she does finally get to the concentrated “Rhythm Nation” part of the set, where the hits are not as condensed, it provides a late gust of ebullience and energy — with the whole palette seeming to become more widescreen, as the full cast of dancers lines up across the now black and white stage, backed by enclosed stairways they occasionally climb and an elevated platform that Jackson traverses when they’re gone. They’re never gone for long: The star has always favored the “nation” part as much as the rhythm, so mass choreography is never more than a couple minutes from coming back.
There are a few quick and awkward moments of eroticism inserted into a show that’s hardly about that at all. Jackson, who has always been an all-or-nothing gal when it comes to revealing her body, is in nothing mode with the costuming here, favoring updates on the socialist-youth-brigade chic of of the “Rhythm Nation” era. There is an attention-getting bit, however, during which Jackson lies down on the stage and, er, presents herself to the audience; judging from the Twitter response, this is already a fan-favorite bit of bawdiness. At another point, a guy is brought onto the stage to be plopped in a chair, which would seem to augur for a reprise of the old bit that has her sexually teasing and tormenting her guest — do people remember that she did this years before Spears brought it into her show? — but it’s suddenly over just as soon as it’s started. Maybe there’s a way to make these feel better integrated into the show instead of thinking that sex needs to be incorporated into the show as a quickie, like just another oldie in the succession of mid-show medleys.
Some things are an improvement on the tours of 25 and 30 years ago, besides the expanded catalog. Back then, she was a pioneer in drawing suspicion for not always having a live mic amid the choreography. It’s not as if every moment of “Metamorphosis” sounds organic, but along with the playing of a live band that eventually appears, caged, at either end of the stage (and who occasionally come out for a solo, as on the duplicated shredding of “Black Cat”), Jackson sure sounds like she’s figured out a way over the years to hoof it and still sing live for much of the show. She’s never been a belter, and you’re not coming to hear vocal gymnastics, but it makes a difference in the personability of the show.
Initially, you may be taken by the lack of singularly spectacular production numbers in the show. There are no stunts, per se, beyond Jackson literally dropping in on a descending logo at show’s beginning; Gaga’s flight harness remains safely in storage, somewhere backstage. But the show doesn’t really suffer from its lack of androids. The most enjoyable bit of stagecraft has Jackson and her dancers appear to be on a subway car, between two sets of projections, a good example of what can be done, design-wise, without unnecessary props.
Jackson has long embodied a lot of contradictory qualities: the shy exhibitionist; the young woman who retakes “Control” from her family, then embodies familial loyalty (needless to say, Michael Jackson songs are prominent among the introductory music, even if “Scream” has finally been pushed out of the setlist); the Marvin Gaye-like detour from social consciousness-raiser to pure sensualist. For strong women and for African American women in particular, she was a one-woman smorgasbord of identities from which to draw upon, and it’s energizing to feel that history in the buzz of the crowd as you walk in — it’s something that has the slightest bit more giddy gravitas circulating amid the slot machines outside the Park entrance. Based on that, she’d probably get a pass for putting 75 percent effort in, but “Metamorphosis” isn’t just dependent on residual affection for its pleasures. She’s doing a lot for us lately, too.
Jackson’s “Metamorphosis” show continues at the Park May 18, 21-22 and 25-26, July 24, 26-27 and 31, and August 2-3, 7, 9-10, 14 and 16-17.