Sunday, April 13, 2014 | noon
It’s fitting that the first weekend of Olivia Newton-John’s residency at Flamingo coincides with the Masters, and not just because she is one.
In the game of golf, the greatest players are not necessarily those who slam and spray tee shots 350 yards. The greats hit the fairways. They lay up with the high irons when it’s prudent. They fire at the greens when they believe that the percentages and conditions are in their favor. They make the 8-foot putts and play with poise and precision.
Watching Newton-John perform Friday night was to be reminded of the value of course management as it applies to live entertainment. Stage management is probably the best term. She was never in a hurry. She paced the show expertly, pulling out the driver only when the conditions favored her game, like when she sang the universally recognizable “You’re the One That I Want” and “Summer Nights,” which is the title of her show, both from “Grease.”
Newton-John has played the course before, over and over. At age 65, her career in Las Vegas dates to a 1974 run at Las Vegas Hilton opening for Charlie Rich. She has opened for and performed with many stars who peppered the Strip in the 1970s and into the ’70s. She opened for Eddie Rabbit and swapped shtick with Don Rickles at such haunts as Desert Inn’s Crystal Showroom and Circus Maximus at Caesars Palace.
So cozying up to an audience at the recently dubbed Donny & Marie Showroom at Flamingo Las Vegas is not a tall order. She opened and closed with slower-tempo numbers, starting with “Have You Never Been Mellow” and ending with “I Honestly Love You.” Early in the performance, she sang “A Little More Love” as a videomontage of her career beamed from the big screens behind and flanking the stage. Mixed with “Grease” were segments from her early music videos, photos of her wedding to John Easterling and clips of stepping sprightly with Gene Kelly in “Xanadu.” She unearthed the hopelessly but happily dated “Physical” video, too (mixed in with her guest spot on “Glee” performing “Physical” with Jane Lynch), one of the great applications of Spandex you’ll see on a Las Vegas stage that is not in a Cirque show.
Newton-John remains nimble afoot and — most impressively — still possesses that lovely voice. Her durability is paramount to her run at Flamingo, as she is selling tickets through August but committed to performing at the D&M Showroom through the end of the year. Marie Osmond was seated in the audience, and the Donny & Marie camp would love nothing more than to have Newton-John share that showroom indefinitely performing in an alternating schedule to relieve some of the performance pressure on the brother-sister duo. Certainly, Newton-John’s show is locked into a comfortable formula. It is, at the core, a concert show that is fulfilling to the audience without being to0 terribly taxing on the star.
Crucial to the appeal of Newton-John is her near-flawless voice. Some artists are recognizable the moment they start a song, and Newton-John is one. It helps that her backing band is the one with which she tours and is airtight, yet another reason why live musicians trump tracks, every time. In her acoustic country set (the requisite moment when the artist unplugs all the instruments and sits for a spell), she delivered note-perfect takes of “Let Me Be There” and “Please Mr. Please.” She played two covers fans might not have anticipated, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Send In the Clowns,” attempts that would have landed in the drink from a lesser vocalist.
Newton-John eagerly embraces “Grease,” the classic film that helped vault her to a “legacy” artist, leading the audience in a sing-along near the end of the show. Needlessly, the lyrics are presented on the big screens. Every person in the audience seems to know the words to these songs, and it seemed a fitting way to close the production. A lot of superstars would have left the audience performing a conga line out the door with “Summer Nights.”
But Newton-John instead delivered the ballad “I Honestly Love You,” waved to the adoring audience and strode from the stage. It was a round expertly played.