Las Vegas bets on Celine Dion for its recovery

— Caesars Palace, or so the story goes, has no apostrophe in its name because its founders wanted it to be a resort for all, not a palace for one. But a few nights ago, there wasn't much question whose house it had become — again.

In case anyone had managed to miss the news, there were massive signs posted, reading "CELINE'S BACK" under a photo of, well, Celine's back. The $95-million Colosseum theater had never looked finer, the acreage of its stage draped with lavish velvet, superimposed with images of vines and lilies.

Everyone was in place — wealthy "whales" who had dropped enough dough in Las Vegas to meet the star herself; her husband René Angélil, who discovered her at age 12 and has remained the man behind the curtain for 30 years; Ken Ehrlich, the producer of the Grammy Awards who signed on as her director. And, of course, the Quebecoise chanteuse herself: Céline Marie Claudette Dion, who ascended the stage in a glittering, floor-length gown, her left hand clutching a microphone, her right over her heart, taking in the applause of a sold-out theater to launch a three-year contract that will reportedly pay her more than $20,000 per song.

You could make a pretty good argument, though, that one of the most important people in the room — in the eyes of Las Vegas — was back in Seat 414. There, a gray-haired man in a sturdy plaid shirt was smiling blithely at the music, tapping his hands on his jeans and occasionally responding out loud in a lilting French accent. When Dion nailed the high note in "The Power of Love," 64-year-old Michel Turcotte rose to his feet with the rest of the audience. He'd flown with his wife from Dion's native Quebec to see the show, to a town that desperately needs that sort of thing, and now he leaned over conspiratorially, as if sharing a guarded secret: "The people — they love her. No?"

They do — here, certainly.

Dion is a divisive figure. Some music aficionados hail her five-octave voice as a divine gift, and with more than 200 million copies of 23 albums sold, Dion is one of history's most successful recording artists. To detractors, she serves up a plasticine stew of schmaltz and pathos. Few artists better illustrate the gap between professional critics and the masses of listeners. "My Heart Will Go On," the theme song from "Titanic," is one of the bestselling singles of all time; it also, one critic wrote, causes "eye bleeding."

Now, a curious thing has happened in Las Vegas: Dion, 43, is not just viewed as another performer, or even another top-billed performer. In a town where the economic devastation is severe even by the standards of the rest of the nation, Dion is viewed as almost a savior.

Dion's previous run at Caesars Palace, "A New Day," drew 3 million customers from 138 countries between 2003 and 2007, sold out 723 times and grossed more than $400 million, putting her in the select company of Elvis and Sinatra — artists who intertwined their fortunes with the fortunes of Vegas itself.

Economy's collapse

It was not her fault, of course, but it is inescapable that the sharp decline of Las Vegas seemed to coincide with the end of Dion's last run at Caesars — Dec. 15, 2007, when she took the stage with her crew and family members as red rose petals rained around her.

After that, Dion left town for a world tour and to give birth to fraternal twin boys, Nelson and Eddy. Back in Las Vegas, meanwhile, the bottom fell out. Vegas had overestimated its mandate from the public, flooding an already saturated market with new homes, casinos and hotels. From that moment, virtually every economic indicator dropped markedly — hotel occupancy rates, home prices, traffic at the airport, state gambling revenues, which tumbled 9.7% in 2008 and a record 10.4% in 2009. Granted, the overall U.S. economy suffered a dramatic dip over a similar time frame, but presently Vegas's unemployment rate is at 13.7% — and a full quarter of the workforce is still either unemployed, underemployed or has given up looking for work, analysts estimate.

The economic activity of the Las Vegas region, despite its woes, still clocks in at $88 billion a year; it's preposterous to think that any single show could save an economy of that scale. And yet, with that context, it's easier to digest some of the hyperbolic response to the opening of Dion's new show — like that of Carlos Perez, the manager at Spago, the high-end Wolfgang Puck restaurant inside Caesars, a couple hundred yards from Dion's theater. Perez said that when he learned that Dion was returning, the first thing he did was look skyward and thank God.

Indeed, even if Dion fervor might seem a bit overwrought, hers is a famously disciplined commercial engine. There are suggestions that her return is already having an effect.

Tickets, priced as high as $250 a pop, are moving quickly. Dion is expected to perform 70 times this year, her show dates largely clustered around her eldest son René-Charles' school vacation schedule in Florida — an effort to foster as stable a life as possible for the 10-year-old. Stephen P.A. Brown, director of the Center for Business & Economic Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said the economic activity generated by those performances could reach $135 million this year. Nearly 1 million tickets are expected to be sold in the next three years; the show is expected to create, at least indirectly, 2,200 jobs each year.

Dion, meanwhile, has long nurtured an international audience; most of her peers sell about half their albums domestically and half in other countries, while she has always sold about two-thirds of her albums outside the United States. That's one reason visits by fans like Turcotte are considered so significant; international visitors to Las Vegas, whose numbers fell pointedly during the decline, typically stay longer and spend more than a third again as much as their American counterparts.

"When she left, it created a void," said Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman. "It's a big deal for us."

The economic impact can be seen in other more subtle ways too — more subtle, that is, than the mob scene that breaks out at the gift shop after her show, where fans snatch up Dion fragrances, Dion flip-flops and Dion champagne flutes.

For instance, she has traded in some of the stage display of her last run for a classic, 31-piece orchestra, replete with a fluegelhorn solo and three cellists who pretend to blow smoke off the tips of their bows after one particularly energetic piece.

The orchestra members are deftly and imaginatively woven into the show; they're also all members of Local 369, the Vegas musicians' union, said its president, Frank Leone. The orchestra members are not employees of Caesars, but of Dion herself — "and they work under a very fine contract," Leone said.

"This hearkens back to the Frank Sinatra days," he added. "This is a quantum leap for us. She is putting musicians back to work."

Dion's camp seems alternately pleased with the buzz — Angélil, her husband, said he's already in preliminary talks to extend her run at Caesars beyond three years — and determined to tamp down on outsize expectations.

"They think she's going to perform a miracle," said Angélil, 69. A skilled poker player, Angélil said his wife might be, for Vegas, more akin to the trinkets and photographs he carries to the tables for luck. "Celine could be a lucky charm. But as far as changing the economy — this is asking too much," he said.

Dion's handlers have tried to shield her from oversize expectations — but she's well aware of it.

"I try not to think about it — the pressure," she said, sipping hot tea after a recent show. "What I do is music — it's not life-changing."

Ella, Billie and Michael

Dion's return marks a newfound maturity, and the new show contains a number of surprising departures — many of them of her own choosing.

It turns out, for instance, that when she's home — either in Caesars Palace, where the family is living while their Nevada home undergoes renovation, or on Jupiter Island, Fla. — she takes long showers while belting out Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday songs. So she decided that at one point in the show, she'd take a salty turn with her orchestra whittled down to a jazz club trio, scatting her way through "(If You Can't Sing It) You'll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)," made famous by Fitzgerald.

There is also a medley of James Bond theme songs, powerfully delivered by the orchestra, and a tribute to Michael Jackson, the performer who long ago ignited Dion's drive to become an international presence — and to learn how to sing in English. She also sits on the edge of the stage and sings the Janis Ian song "At Seventeen," an homage, Dion said, to her own youth, when she was a gangly, shy girl with funky teeth who had a hard time fitting in. Most notably, she brings an otherwise raucous audience to a still silence with a dew-eyed rendition of the French song "Ne Me Quitte Pas."

"In a garden," she said of the varied repertoire, "you don't have to grow roses only. It's OK to grow tulips too. It's OK to grow gardenias. I don't think it takes away from the roses."

In the end, though, her show comes back to her hits — because under the firm contract she has with her ardent fans, it must.

Dion tells a story that a few years back, she decided she wanted to cut off her billowing locks. Her husband told her: "They won't like it."

"And they hated it," Dion said. She said she confided to a member of her entourage: "I don't even own my hair."

"He explained to me: 'Everything in their life changes. There are so few things in their life that are stability. You are that stability. It is beyond music.'" By now, she said, she's comfortable in that relationship with her audience. "They know what to expect," she said. "For them, it's security. They trust me."

And so toward the end of the evening , when Dion finished her show with "River Deep, Mountain High" and shouted "Good night!" no one took a step for the exit. That's because the ship, ahem, had not sailed. There was just enough time for yet another costume change and then — cue: wooden flute — time to encore once again, and always, with "My Heart Will Go On."

Vegas isn't really about risk but about the illusion of risk. You are, over time, virtually guaranteed to both lose money and have a fairly good time. People visit less for adventure and more because they want a sure thing; there's a reason Fat Elvis is an icon here, not Skinny Elvis.

Dion may not be cutting-edge or hip, but neither is Vegas. She is, night in, night out, like a romance novel — not life-changing, perhaps, but a balm to her fans, a satisfying sure thing for an hour and 42 minutes. In that sense, she is as natural to Vegas as a noon wakeup call.

"Pretty nice. No?" Michel Turcotte, the French Canadian tourist, said when the lights came on. "I believe that many people will come to see her. Many, many. Many."

That, as much as the rest, was music to Vegas' ears.

scott.gold@latimes.com

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