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Critic's Notebook: A Tale of Two Gagas

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Photos by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Park MGM

How do you like your “Paparazzi”?

Airborne, floating above the stage in a gilded egg while swathed in a green boa, after the animated android warns about being “captured” and “used”?

Or seated at a white piano in a black dress, and fully orchestrated? After a warning that even a life draped in “velvet and diamonds” has challenges, because “it is legal to be followed”?

A few songs and a little persecution complex overlap in a Las Vegas first: Lady Gaga is alternating two very different shows at Park MGM.

Most of the time, you get Enigma, a greatest-hits opus washed in florescent sci-fi, complete with giant robot. But sprinkled throughout the schedule — and likely to be sprinkled in more, one suspects — are occasional nights of Jazz & Piano. They build on 2014’s Cheek to Cheek album, and her tours with Tony Bennett, which expanded Gaga’s appeal beyond diva arena-pop.

Today’s Oscar nomination for Best Actress in A Star is Born reminds us that the 32-year-old star is in a unique position to pull off the dual format no other Las Vegas star has attempted. Linda Ronstadt, Barry Manilow, and Rod Stewart are among the many pop singers to tackle the Great American Songbook. But they failed to leverage their big-selling standards albums on the Strip. “I don’t know who buys them, but they don’t seem to show up at the Rod concerts,” Stewart mused in 2011.

Near the end of the first Jazz & Piano, Gaga told the crowd that when she pitched the dual-show idea, the brass at MGM Resorts said, “I don’t know about that.” But, she added, “Guess what? The jazz show sold out faster.”

It’s hard to imagine any reason for corporate hesitation, beyond maybe the budget. The jazz show isn’t some bare-stage, potted-fern affair like Garth Brooks at Wynn Las Vegas. The robot gets a night off, but the show is still fully produced: 23 union string and horn players behind the core band, a retro nightclub set, and connecting video to cover a quartet of outré costume changes.

In return, Park MGM can embrace the full range of Gaga fans. Why choose between the millennials and the boomers when you can have both, and cover every bar stool and restaurant seat in the hotel?

But the real reason you don’t say no to Gaga is, why would you? To land her for at least two years, you give the Lady what she wants. And she seems to know what she’s doing. “You go home, and you listen to that inner voice inside of you and you believe in yourself,” she instructed fans on opening night of Enigma.

That inner voice may be to thank for neither show ending up as a generic showcase another star could step into. Sure, Enigma trots out the Madonna tropes of shirtless male dancers and choreography that engulfs the star in a “Where’s Waldo?” game. But if you can get past the groaner exchanges with the video android version of Gaga (“I must now take you to the healing place”), it resonates as a shared, 10-year celebration with fans who “gave birth to me,” while still surprising us with early songs such as “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” or — living up to Gaga’s “progressive pop” tag — a cover of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans.”

The years with Tony Bennett (who made a two-song surprise appearance on opening night) have seasoned Standards Gaga well beyond the playing-grownup novelty of their early duets. She personalizes the standards by throwing in a few of her own hits, though they are usually in solo-piano isolation rather than orchestrated. Far from role-playing, she seems more free to share in the jazz show than in Enigma, which gives her only two moments to sit at the piano and talk.

What’s shared in both shows can sure sound defensive for someone at the height of her powers. “They thought I was shallow,” she announced at one point on opening night of Enigma, “but this shit is deep as f---.” But that profundity didn’t upstage what was truly the most bizarre moment in the pop show: telling the dancers and audience to “go ahead and flip me off.” As they/we comply, she announced, “In the future I see myself strong. So go ahead and tell me to go f--- myself!”

But, hey, Frank Sinatra often had a chip on his shoulder, too. And Sinatra would likely be as big a fan as Bennett if he heard Gaga perch on the edge of the piano bench to completely sell a hushed and earthy version of “Someone to Watch Over Me.” (The throaty barroom low notes of Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday are evident long before she cites them as influences). But she emerges from the song noting that (having someone) is “not something to worry about when you know who you are.”

Seeing both shows is a pricey proposition, so only the most devout, pre-sold fans are likely to try. And that’s ironic when it comes to Gaga’s apparent need to still validate herself, for it’s the casual fans who will be surprised at the genuine star quality on display in both. You just can’t take your eyes off her, even in those stretches of Day-Glo overkill or flat crooning. And she will make sure that you don’t.

“It was just last night I was bent over in a thong,” she says at the launch of the jazz show. But before “Call Me Irresponsible” is over, she hooks a leg behind that of trumpet sidekick Brian Newman for some very un-ladylike grinding. Two shows, but only one Gaga.

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