In a town defined by its glitz, glamour and, yes, overindulgence, Shania Twain embraced all those qualities then upped the ante with her own spectacular new stage show.
Adapting the production title from one of her biggest hits on Come On Over, the blockbuster album that forever changed the face of country, Shania: Still the One hit the jackpot this month in Las Vegas.
Never afraid to gamble or willing to settle for subtle, the Canadian cutie born Eilleen Regina Edwards on Aug. 28, 1965, transformed right before our eyes into a singing, swinging sex kitten and video vixen in the 1990s who dazzled us with her brains and beauty.
Now she's betting it all on a career comeback that puts her in the spotlight (where she belongs) for the first time in eight years.
As Lady Luck would have it, she drew full houses for each of the 10 shows that competed her first run, and sales are reportedly brisk for her next 14 dates from March 19 to April 10. Dates for 12 more shows in May and June were just announced this weekend.
Beginning a two-year residency on December 1 at the Colosseum, the Caesars Palace venue also known as the House that Celine Dion Built in 2003, Twain has created a theatrical show that's more Broadway musical than Vegas revue. Only this cast of characters has one lone star.
For a hopeless devotee who was a dues-paying member of Twain's fan club, saw stops on her biggest tours ($30 for Come On Over in 1998; $84 for Up! on Dec. 1, 2003) and bought all her CDs, this gift was better than anything you could find under the Christmas tree.
"The fact that I made it with from wherever I started it my life, to share the stage with them, I can tell you there is no way but 'Up!' from here." -- Shania Twain, the Colosseum's first resident headliner from the country genre, addressing the audience three songs into her December 6 performance while giving shout-outs to Elton John, Rod Stewart and Dion, all on the esteemed roster of artists appearing at the venue, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in March.
Just like Tina Tuner, another take-it-to-the-limits showgirl who never does anything nice and easy, Shania is living larger than life. In her palace away from home, she has quite a support staff, too.
During that December 6 show, with an 18-song set list over 90 minutes that didn't vary from Day 1 to Day 4, Twain presented: 10 musicians, including a quartet of fiddlers and a cellist; four male dancers; three backing vocalists, including her kid sister Carrie Ann Brown; two beautiful horses, one black, one white, both trained by Ramon Becerra; and a monstrous motorcycle with equine features hanging on wires from the rafters that the age-defying woman in a sleek catsuit straddled high above the stage, momentarily trading identities with Peter Pan while believing she really can fly.
All that was missing this holiday season was a partridge in a pear tree, but maybe that's something she and director Raj Kapoor will work on for next year.
Don't put it past the daring darling to try anything at least once. Twain has overcome the odds in her career and personal life more than once to achieve her dreams.
The tragic death of her parents in a car accident, her meteoric rise to stardom and the painful end to an apparent match made in crossover music heaven were all juicy story lines gobbled up for public consumption as gossipmongers lurked like vultures on the highway to hell.
Her marriage, her music and her voice vanished, and so did this modern-day heroine who we wanted to see live happily ever after. Through it all, Twain kept a stiff upper lip, choosing to wait until it was her time to tell her story her way.
When everything is goin' wrong
Don't worry it won't last for long
Yeah, it's all gonna come around
Don't go let it get you down
You gotta keep on holding on
-- Twain on "Up!" the title cut from her fourth (and last) studio album, released in 2002
From This Moment On, an inspirational memoir with a title taken from another megahit, and a surprisingly low-key but deeply personal reality series on the Oprah Winfrey Network fanned the flames of fame again last year, perhaps to gauge whether anyone still cares about Shania.
Of course, we do. So a spectacle that had been in the planning stages long before tickets went on sale in June 2011 became a reality. Despite everything that's wrong with the world, Twain's run through a long line of hits (including eight from Come On Over), can make it seem right again, while staying with you long after the final bow is taken.
"I had many influences growing up as far as music was concerned. And I'm a big fan of I think probably almost every kind of music. But my parents had the biggest influence on me over anybody else in my youth and that was with country music, especially. And they always had the eight-track tapes going in the truck and in the car. ... The singer-songwriters were my greatest influence; people like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash. And I always just thought they were the best storytellers and I've had a great deal of fun over the years writing stories and music and combining them together. So we are going to keep that country flow going for you guys. We're going to keep kicking up the dust and kicking up some more shit, too." -- Twain during a country segment in a Wild West saloon setting
Some folks in traditional country circles frowned on Shania's excess success, and probably still do. But they should be grateful. She made country hot and cool at the same time.
Her ability to bring that style of music -- and the Music City -- to the masses should have made everybody happy, even critics who claimed she was a pop tart controlled by a Svengali-like power. This exciting hybrid of the genre finally provided an alternative to testosterone-driven songs about hard-drinkin', truck-drivin' and drinkin' while drivin'.
While those proven formulas will never go away, the groundbreaking Twain created room for female empowerment while her passion for fashion appealed to men's basic instincts. And, hot-damn, didn't catchy tunes like "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?" and, to a Queen-like "We Will Rock You" beat, "Any Man of Mine" (both performed during the Wild West segment) get couples off the couch and onto the dance floor? The Texas Two-Step replaced aerobics as the latest cardio craze during the days that rang out the 20th century.
Though all her hit records were written with Robert "Mutt" Lange, the mentor/producer she would eventually marry and divorce, Twain's spirit of independence opened the door for others who wanted to have it all, much to the chagrin of Nashville's tight-knit songwriting community.
Whether or not they wrote, sexy singers with skills sprang up throughout Nash-Vegas, from Faith Hill, Sara Evans and Sherrie Austin then, to Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift now. If they haven't already, each one should find a place in her heart to recognize Twain's contribution.
Hill and her husband Tim McGraw, perhaps piggybacking on Twain's idea, announced in August that they were bringing their Soul2Soul show to the Venetian in Las Vegas for a 10-weekend residency. It also happened to begin the first week in December, wisely coinciding with the National Finals Rodeo in town, where cowboys seemed to outnumber down-and-out gamblers.
The country power couple's holiday break was even scheduled at the same time as their primary competitor, but they will return in January, two months ahead of Twain. Despite all the star power, this town is big enough for all of them to succeed.
While Faith has Tim to fall back on, though, during their two-show nights, the focus is entirely on Shania the moment she enters from above. Her connection to the crowd is instantaneous, but venturing into the aisles while sharing a microphone with an off-key amateur (like on "Honey, I'm Home") is risky business during a night filled with potential pitfalls. Yet Twain's delight and interest in interacting seem genuine.
Staying away from her own personal turmoil, she took considerable time during an enjoyable middle section of the show to share bits and pieces of her humble beginnings.
"I just really cherish those early years where we didn't have anything and all I did was ... my Barbie dolls really were singing, writing music, playing with my guitar," Twain said, realizing her dream that during part of this show she could "sing in harmony without all the hoopla."
She introduced twin brothers who "sing like angels," Ryan and Dan Kowarsky, the Canadian duo known as RyanDan, and they joined in for the only cover of the set -- a quick a cappella version of "Carrie Anne."
The song that stayed with Shania "all through the years" led to thoughts about her mother who loved the Everly Brothers and the vocal blend they created, then her sister who in 1967 was named after that Hollies song.
"Now Carrie and I are working on doing something together alone but right at the moment she's not quite there yet," Twain revealed about her mother's "beautiful gift" who quit singing at age 8 and was even hesitant to join this act.
The cozy atmosphere was augmented when six enthusiastic fans (especially a heavy-set Nashville man named Dan) were plucked from the audience by Twain and her husband Frederic Thiebaud for a singalong around a faux campfire where the sounds of the night included chirping crickets.
For anybody who forgot all that Twain accomplished in less than a decade, this show will certainly bring you back to your senses. Clips from Shania's most iconic videos, including "That Don't Impress Me Much," "Love Gets Me Every Time" and "Man! I Feel Like A Woman" are shown on a 31-ton high-definition LED screen that measures 34 feet by 109 feet.
And while some of the dazzling Marc Bouwer-designed outfits from those shows are on display either in the lobby or outside the Colosseum"s entrance, Twain looks remarkable in attire also made by the famed costumier that's reminiscent of the originals. Following the catsuit were blue jeans with hot pink boots, short shorts, the knockoff leopard ensemble, an exquisite white gown and a short, black cocktail dress.
Shania Twain and the white horse during the opening night of
Shania: Still the One on December 1, 2012, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Denise Truscello)
A show with too many highlights to count, it's the final 15 minutes that make skin tingle, hearts ache, tears drop and tongues wag. Confetti in the shapes of snowflakes falls heavily as Twain rides in on the white horse (which follows her every move) for the romantic one-two punch of "You're Still the One" and "From This Moment On," delivered divinely but with an air of melancholia, considering her devastating breakup with the song's cowriter.
But after one more costume change, it all ends well. With the feel-good "Man! I Feel Like A Woman!" blasting, sprinkles of gold glitter heighten the celebratory mood, SHANIA literally lights up the house and groups of the troupe take their final bows to a standing ovation. If only this well-orchestrated event left room for an encore.
"We've got a rowdy crowd here. I really like this; makes it so much fun. This is why I do this. I love to sing and I love music, but the only reason that I do this up on stage is because of you. You guys make it all worth it. I started my career at 3 years old. ... My passion grew very strongly at a very young age. And my mother recognized that and nurtured it and developed it. And we didn't have any money, so it's not like I went to some great performing arts school. ... It all started quite late for me." -- Twain, following a neat visual trick when she slammed the door shut to end "(If You're Not In It For Love) I'm Outta Here!"
Twain was 29 when her breakthrough album The Woman in Me was released in the spring of 1995, then 31 when Come On Over came out in 1997 and went on to sell more than 40 million albums worldwide, the crowning achievement for the top-selling female country artist of all time. Now she's 47, and while she continues to work on those pipes affected by vocal dysphonia, the performer who's as energetic and entertaining as ever still yearns to "sing without all the hoopla."
During one of the early stage transformations, a film clip depicted a Shania showdown, pitting good vs. evil characters wearing cowboy hats. There probably are more sides the public hasn't seen.
So who's the real Shania? The private introvert who left at the top of her game and waited so long to return to the stage or the gregarious and courageous diva with nerve enough to dive into a show with so many moving parts and pull it off without a hitch?
With approximately 110 shows to go until Twain's reign at the Colosseum ends in 2014, there's only one place to find the answer.
Photos by Michael Bialas, unless otherwise indicated. See more from the Shania Twain show in Las Vegas on December 6.