LAS VEGAS – In a blur of blue sequins and sunglasses, Usher hustles down a walkway between aisles of grabby fans, trailed by security and camera operators as he unfurls the aptly named show opener, “My Way.”
In less than a minute, he’s bopped on stage, fleet-footed as always with a formation of dancers ready to join him in lockstep for the swooping “Caught Up,” one of his numerous club hits that entices with its smash-up of pop and R&B.
It’s been two weeks since the debut of Usher’s residency at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace, the hallowed musical domicile fashioned for Celine Dion nearly 20 years ago (2003) that has hosted Elton John, Cher, Bette Midler, Shania Twain and a handful of other vaunted stars with catalogs robust enough to engage fans and high rollers alike.
And the multi-threat performer realizes that his inclusion among those who are – or could be – known by a single moniker, is significant.
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“To be greeted with the excitement of people who want to get out after being locked down the past year – and the fact that I’m playing a venue where legendary artists have played – it’s all just an honor,” Usher told USA TODAY, shortly after landing back in Las Vegas from the Los Angeles home that is his base during these shows. “Even as a kid, when I would look back and hear about Sinatra or Elvis, (Vegas) was always the place they went. This is the planned destination for anyone who considers themselves an artist who has made a contribution.”
Along with Bruno Mars (playing at Park MGM), Usher marks the return of the megastar residency to the Strip, where he's been greeted with sold-out shows. His August dates (Aug. 4, 6-7, 11 and 13-14) were added because of demand; he returns for a holiday run Dec. 28-29 and Dec. 31-Jan. 1.
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While Nevada reinstated its indoor mask policy on July 30, a sizable sampling of The Colosseum crowd that night ignored the mandate, despite the valiant reminder efforts of ushers (no relation).
Usher even joked from the stage to some compliant fans in his eye line, “I know how hard it is to breathe in that damn mask, but nothing can keep us apart.”
Masked or not, fans danced and shouted along for the hour and 40 minutes that Usher rolled through dozens (sometimes snippets) of his more than 50 charting singles. His liquid dance moves – still a marvel of elegant pirouetting and hip-hop-inspired nimbleness – were often accompanied by the contributions of an impressively limber cast of ladies, a few shirtless dudes and Usher’s pure, undiminished voice.
Some highlights from the show:
Usher's residency brings touch of the ATL to Vegas
Though he spent his early years in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Usher is definitively Atlanta, where he’s built his career and family. During “U Remind Me,” he sported a baseball cap, jauntily tipped on his head, with a signature “A” emblazoned on the front.
A fleeting bit of a song from fellow Atlanta luminaries OutKast was tucked into the segue to “Don’t Waste My Time,” which found Usher and two dancers roller-skating across the massive stage in a choreographed routine worthy of Broadway. It was both a nod to his youth spent at Atlanta’s Cascade Skating Rink (the backdrop of the 2006 movie “ATL”) and to one of his dancing heroes, Gene Kelly.
“All of the things in the show are inspirations from things I’ve done on video, and also the culture of Atlanta,” he says, adding that fellow Atlantan (and “Yeah!” buddy) Lil Jon helped him curate the production. “I feel like that culture is exciting, from the idea of skating culture to adult entertainment to music.”
The latter two were showcased during “Bad Girl.” “Hey, Vegas, I brought you Atlanta!” Usher yelled gleefully during a segment influenced by the city’s famed strip club, Magic City. Red- and pink-lit platforms, poles and ladders provided the backdrop as Usher frolicked among a sea of gyrating derrieres. The segment ended with his headline-making “Ushbucks” floating from the rafters to “make it rain” in the venue.
At 42, Usher is still a specimen of physical dedication
The multi-pack he bares during “Nice & Slow” would make any gym rat envious – and pouring a bottle of water over his already sweat-slicked body is the kind of “Magic Mike” eye-roll-with-a-smile move so fitting for Vegas.
His workouts with a personal trainer are specified to “core strengthening, like an athlete,” Usher says.
No doubt that Usher’s showmanship is supreme and his leonine athleticism a hallmark of his performances. But never let it be forgotten that he possesses one of the most vibrant and malleable voices in music.
Even with a healthy assist from backing tracks during the show (his three band members were perched on platforms flanking the stage, but did not add vocals), Usher’s leads were impeccable.
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He can bounce through rap-sung club bangers such as “Yeah!” and “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love” with the required swagger. But give him a hand-held mic and an open stage and whether it’s “U Remind Me” or the emotionally devastating “Burn,” Usher will reign.
His joy of being onstage is palpable throughout the vigorous show, and Usher is dedicated to entertaining his fans, but also reminding himself why he’s embracing the pressures of this high-profile gig.
“I want to make sure I educate you on who I am (with this show),” Usher says. “I am an entertainer and entertainment is a long game. Whether you’re AC/DC or James Brown or the Grateful Dead or The Temptations, you love it ‘til the day you die.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Las Vegas residency is best of Usher: Dance, voice, spectacle