Review: Lady Gaga Maintains ‘Poker Face’ During Stellar Vegas Debut – Rolling Stone
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Review: Lady Gaga Maintains ‘Poker Face’ During Stellar Vegas Debut

Pop star takes break from Oscar campaign to take fans to beginning of enigmatic career

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 28:  (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Lady Gaga performs during her 'ENIGMA' residency at Park Theater at Park MGM on December 28, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Park MGM Las Vegas)

Lady Gaga takes a break from her 'A Star Is Born' Oscar campaign to revisit the hits that birthed her own megastardom for Vegas residency.

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Park MGM Las Ve

Drifting through the sensory overload of Park MGM’s casino, Lady Gaga is everywhere. Flashing video screens welcome her to Las Vegas for the beginning of her two-year residency at the Park Theater; a cocktail bar blasts “Hair Body Face,” a deep cut from the soundtrack for her Oscar buzz film A Star Is Born; the casino itself plays songs like Joanne’s “Dancin in Circles” and “Telephone” as thousands of fans wind around the craps tables and slot machines in sequins, fur and Gaga merch from past incarnations of the pop diva.

Currently, Gaga is one of the youngest pop adapters of the Vegas lifestyle. The city’s entertainment sector hit the jackpot with crooners, kitschy pop acts and, in the past few decades, with big-voiced divas that could appeal to the older regulars. More recently, a new wave of pop stars have found homes around the city: Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and Gwen Stefani were part of the more unlikely new stars on the Vegas Strip. Gaga’s career has only been half as long as her new neighbors — and even shorter than legacy acts like Cher, Celine and Elton who have paved the way for success here — but when she signed on to her two-year deal, it seemed like a part of Gaga’s vampy, big voiced theatrics were made for this bright, busy, sleepless city. Over her two-hour Enigma show, however, she proves something different: a place like Vegas was made just for Gaga. 

Of course, there were questions about what her Vegas show would or could entail. Enigma comes off a few of her most experimental and riskiest years. Following fan-favorite avant-pop ArtPop, she moved to standards for Cheek to Cheek with hero and friend Tony Bennett. With that jazzy turn, she found a new form of authenticity in an industry that sees dance pop auteurs like herself as shallow (more on that in a bit). Her voice paired with a more demure look paved the way for her next few acts: a Golden Globe win for American Horror Story: Hotel, an Oscar nomination for the Diane Warren co-penned “Til It Happens to You,” two Super Bowl appearances (including a halftime show), the stripped-down country-pop of Joanne and more recently, the immense success and Academy Award-worthy turn as not only star but chief songwriter of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born reboot. Ten years in, and the Gaga of now seems worlds away from the one we met at the dawn of her Fame era.

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 28: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Lady Gaga performs during her 'ENIGMA' residency at Park Theater at Park MGM on December 28, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Park MGM Las Vegas)

Enigma, as narrations and setlist confirm, is about Gaga taking a new approach to “returning to her roots” than she claimed with Joanne. She moves to and focuses on the beginning of the Gaga we know: she opens the show with her debut single and hit “Just Dance,” performing it while descending from the ceiling in a harness and blindingly sequined jumpsuit as she slings a key-tar. Nearly half of the show’s set list takes place in the beginning of her reign, with hits and deep cuts from both her debut album The Fame and its extended play follow-up The Fame Monster. It feels almost jarring to see her back in Peak Pop form, especially since she’s been in the midst of an awards campaign for ASIB. Nevertheless, the shock of seeing her back in the form that birthed her as a star wears off as the hit parade begins.

Since Gaga can never keep anything too simple, Enigma follows a dramatic, video game-esque narrative. We’re introduced to an alien guardian angel named Enigma after Gaga finishes performing her first three big hits (“Just Dance,” “Poker Face” and “LoveGame”). Enigma, a svelte silvery being, is our guide for the evening. From a screen behind a set that looks like moon craters in a campy sci-fi film, Enigma explains to Gaga that she is “the mystery of you,” taking our star into a simulation as part of an effort to show her the future. As both Gaga and Enigma reiterate throughout the show, finding the future means revisiting the past.

The carefully chosen selections from her catalog lyrically fit into this narrative: “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” and “The Fame” celebrate those early, broke years as a starving artist stalking the streets of New York City’s Lower East Side. Enigma warns of the vicious paparazzi of the simulation before Gaga sings “Paparazzi” from a floating orb that takes her above the crowd once more. It begins a darker, more dangerous chapter of journey, beginning with the oddly included ArtPop dud “Aura” (yes, it fit the storyline as she references Enigma in the lyrics but the song itself is hardly in the top five tracks of that underrated LP). This foreboding section of the show ends up focusing on Born This Way: she performs “Scheiße” from a startlingly large, metallic, clawed transformer followed by hit “Judas,” lesser known “Government Hooker” and a fitting, ingeniously utilized cover of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans.”

After surviving the paparazzi-induced treachery, she goes to a “healing place,” performing “The Edge of Glory,” “Alejandro,” the set’s lone Joanne moment “Million Reasons”  and “You and I” before Enigma returns to the screen crying. Our alien guardian angel has taken a bit of Gaga’s humanity with her and returns the star to earth where she belongs. Gaga returns to the stage to wrap up her main set in champagne-hued gold for two of her biggest songs: “Bad Romance” and “Born This Way.”

During chapter transitions and outfit changes, Gaga appeared as an anime-video game digital incarnation of herself on screen, chasing after a literal star to a score from her live band. Those moments as well as her own hyper-theatrical exchanges with Enigma and the audience still need a bit smoothing out, but the vampy, campy nature made the show feel at times like an interactive ride at Universal Studios that makes you almost wish that the seats moved like a roller coaster as cartoon Gaga traverses space.

The best moments are the ones that feel improvised, like when she ad libs during “You and I,” singing the line “Been a long time but I’m back in town” before adding, “and I’m stickin’ around for two whole years. Three if I’m lucky!”

There’s a short encore to properly conclude the show once Enigma departs. In an oversized march shirt that has her Bowie-inspired “Poker Face” lightning bolt cutting through a silhouette of her body, she sings one last song: “Shallow,” the runaway hit from A Star Is Born. The moment is a balm, and its one that makes sure the show’s time machine takes us right back to the present, reminding us how far she’s come and the many lives she’s lived after taking us on a tour of her own musical history. She performs “Shallow” as Ally Maine does towards the end of the film after becoming a full-fledged pop idol.

That particular performance scene is brief, intercut with emotional trauma, but shows the fictional singer tackling her debut hit solo from behind a piano, as her band turns the once-intimate guitar duet into a rousing arena-pop anthem. That’s the version we get from Gaga at the end of her own show, but we know she’s at a point in her career Ally Maine can only dream of.

“They thought I was shallow, but this shit is deep as fuck,” she exclaims before taking her spot behind the piano. While singing the verse Cooper’s Jackson Maine gruffly belts in the film, Gaga cracks for the first time, pausing to let tears flow before regaining her focus. She ends with a stern, stone-faced stare into the distance, one that she doesn’t break as the cheers flood around her. For a show that at first seemed like an excuse to remind us what Gaga is best at, it ended up becoming a show that confirms and begins her legacy.

Lady Gaga’s Enigma Set List:

“Just Dance”
“Poker Face”
“LoveGame”
“Dance in the Dark”
“Beautiful, Dirty, Rich”
“The Fame”
“Telephone”
“Applause”
“Paparazzi”
“Aura”
“Scheiße”
“Judas”
“Government Hooker”
“I’m Afraid of Americans” (David Bowie cover)
“The Edge of Glory”
“Alejandro”
“Million Reasons”
“You and I”
“Bad Romance”
“Born This Way”

Encore:

“Shallow”

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