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Commentary: A pop star is reborn: Lady Gaga introduces Las Vegas to her new show Enigma

Commentary: A pop star is reborn: Lady Gaga introduces Las Vegas to her new show Enigma
Lady Gaga performs during her Enigma residency at the Park Theater at Park MGM on Dec. 28 in Las Vegas. (Kevin Mazur / Getty Images for Park MGM Las Vegas/ artist-approved photo)

Lady Gaga Enigma is, on many levels, perfectly attenuated to its host city: dazzling to the eye, impressive to the ears and assaultive to most of the rest of the senses. It’s flashy and arguably a bit shallow.

The show, which opened Friday as part of Lady Gaga’s new residency at the Park Theater in the rebooted Park MGM hotel and resort, is also only half the story of Gaga’s arrival in Sin City: She’s scheduled to give rein to her more sensitive side with Lady Gaga Jazz & Piano, which premieres Jan. 20 and which she’ll alternate with Enigma over the course of what’s been announced as a two-year engagement.

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It’s all part of a $550-million face-lift and rebranding for the former Monte Carlo hotel and resort, one that targets millennials as its primary audience.

The booking of Gaga couldn’t have been better timed, coming as it did in wake of her widely lauded big-screen performance in “A Star Is Born,” a success that’s only heightened the sense of anticipation for her fans.

“I told my mom I just have to go to Lady Gaga in Vegas,” Amy Hamilton, 29, a labor delivery nurse who had traveled from San Francisco, said shortly before the show got underway.

“I own all the records, and all the books. I’ve been the biggest fan. I used to dress up as her,” she said, pulling out her phone and scrolling to a photo of herself in 2009 in a Gaga-inspired outfit at a party to underscore her longstanding admiration of the quixotic singer and songwriter born Stefani Germanotta.

Hamilton’s mother, Barbie Hamilton, 59, of Sacramento, said she appreciates the messages of self-love, community and empowerment in many of Gaga’s songs. “I gave the tickets to her for Christmas.”

“She is so open about who she is,” Amy said of Lady Gaga. “She is comfortable in her own skin, and she shows you that you don’t have to conform.”

It’s not simply her acceptance of nonconformity that explains the deep bond Gaga has formed with her following. She also encourages and celebrates the idea of wide-open individualism, making her a spokeswoman for anyone who feels alienated or marginalized.

Her be-true-to-yourself sermon has long been central to her work, and it’s also at the heart of the connection she’s forged with fans who in one way or another feel misunderstood, alienated or mistreated. That’s a significant population today of young people, women and members of the LGBTQ community whose lives play out to a large extent in an online world where bullying and shaming can be amplified.

Several moments in the show honor that connection, and Gaga stresses the importance of friends — in her case, they’re in the form of the energetic dancers and musicians who accompany her onstage. But they’re also represented in the fans themselves, without whom she has said more than once, “I would be nothing.”

“As a local, I’m so proud that she’s here,” said Jaennelle Vergonio, 27, of Las Vegas, accompanied by her friend Brandon Tran, 26, who trekked nearly 600 miles from San Francisco to join Vergonio for Gaga’s opening night. “For this city, this is huge,” Vergonio said.

The show itself is gigantic on many fronts as well.

From the moment Gaga appeared, suspended from the rafters in a harness high above the 6,200-capacity theater while playing her strapped-on hand-held electronic keyboard for the opening number “Just Dance,” until the finale with her inaugural live performance of “Shallow,” the breakout hit from “A Star Is Born,” Gaga was in full pop star mode.

The show’s central conceit emerges with the arrival of an animated avatar projected on the massive video screen behind the stage. The avatar is Enigma, who acts as something of a spirit guide, aiding Gaga in a fantasized yet earnest quest to discover her “true” self, all while dodging menacing aliens, laser lights and fireworks at nearly every turn.

The hits are there — “Poker Face,” “The Fame,” “Telephone,” “Paparazzi,” “The Edge of Glory,” “Born This Way” and others — but as a piece of theater, Lady Gaga Enigma is fairly disjointed, this despite the framing device of Gaga’s adventure through a series of life simulations courtesy of Enigma.

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Although her songs recognize and address social and cultural challenges, the show largely feels afflicted with an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

There’s little sense of narrative flow, as each elaborate production number and colorful set of imaginative costumes come into play. Likewise, the choreography she and her thoroughly committed dancers engage in offers little in the way of physical expression or amplification of her songs’ lyrics or music, but they do provide plenty of wild, kinetic energy.

One key example of the show’s questionable packing came during her rendition of “Million Reasons,” for which she took a seat at her piano. The instrument was positioned on a platform that extended out from the main stage to place it among the fans in the standing room section of the floor.

Her power ballad of romantic disillusionment built to a bona fide emotional climax—many a fan mouthing every word, with visible tears streaming down some cheeks — to showcase the extraordinary vocal power with which she’s blessed.

But at the song’s end, the momentum dissipated the instant she left the stage, leaving in her wake the equivalent of dead air while she and the entourage geared up for another set piece.

Perhaps she’s reserving a better sense of through-line and structural coherence for Lady Gaga Jazz & Piano.

Little of this, however, seemed to bother the fans. They cheered at every turn, unfazed as she dropped the F-bomb more than once in commanding them to “Get your ... hands in the air!”

She compensated for the periodic gruffness with heart-on-sleeve professions of love for those same fans, and sincere expressions of gratitude for their support of her and her music in the decade since she emerged.

And she developed a potent one-two punch at the end with a celebratory rendition of “Born This Way,” after which she returned for an encore reading of “Shallow,” which works every bit as well in person as it does in “A Star Is Born.”

On the upside, by Vegas showroom standards, Lady Gaga Enigma is generous, running just under two hours, which may help alleviate a bit of the sting of ticket prices that average $400 to $500 at face value and some of which are being offered on ticket resale sites for several thousand dollars apiece.

“Wasn’t that great?” Barbie Hamilton asked at the show’s conclusion. “She uses the F-word too much, but she’s so talented.”

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