Las Vegas Review-Journal February 2002

SHOW REVIEW: Easton smart to settle into smaller room at Hilton

Scottish singer uses venue to expand repertoire to more timeless, universal sound
Sheena Easton is perhaps the anti-diva, downplaying her own career achievements for the more modest goal of reinventing the nightclub act.

It's telling that, after a summer trial run in both the Las Vegas Hilton's 330-seat NightClub and its larger theater, Easton chose to sign up for a full year in the smaller room. (The Commodores, Righteous Brothers and Smothers Brothers will instead test a new "anchor tenant" policy in the theater.)

Smart move. The stakes are lower and the room more open for experimentation; at least half of Easton's current set is different from her show last June and the price is $15 lower. If tickets hold at $29, consider it one of the three best bargains on the Strip (alongside Mac King and The Second City).

If the main room is a star forum that demands a career retrospective, the lounge lets Easton keep things informal.

She can tackle everything from Dionne Warwick's "I Say a Little Prayer" to the Tony Bennett chestnut "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" And if both seemed an awkward match for her husky voice, there's always another song.

The Scottish singer defines her personality not through her music, but with the sharply funny chatter between songs. Her "third-party" assessment of her current lot: "She's still standin' and she can carry a tune."

A confessional honesty lets Easton confront her biggest challenge these days: moving from the sex-symbol image attached to her handful of pop hits in the '80s into a more timeless and universal appeal.

"Hark! Is that the sweet sounds of the '80s I hear?" she said playfully when the band began vamping the 1984 strains of "Strut."

"Back then I was hot. I was a babe in the '80s. ... The only thing they talked about was my looks. Then something happened: My 40s. It just slammed into me, girls."

The pint-sized 42-year-old now opts for a ripe Jessica Rabbit look in her sequined cocktail gowns. It's an image that suits one of the few places where Las Vegas audiences can get a taste of classic cocktail culture in a modern, realistic setting.

That can mean -- both in June and last weekend -- singing to a lethargic crowd that by and large, seemed to have little familiarity with her. "A whole bunch of you thought I went into a cult or something after `For Your Eyes Only,' " she says of the 1981 James Bond theme.

The eight-piece band is tighter than last summer, and the set strikes a better balance in combining Easton's own catalog -- "Almost Over You," "The Lover in Me" -- with like-minded R&B Lite such as Whitney Houston's "Step By Step."

Percussionist Tony Davich steps up as a capable stage foil to take the Kenny Rogers role in "We've Got Tonight," while backing singer Michelle Johnson helps Easton on Natalie Cole's "This Will Be (an Everlasting Love)."

The most daring moment is an a cappella combination of the Beatles' "In My Life" with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Our House," with the whole band gradually joining in.

But for the most part, Easton keeps the show safely grounded in middle-of-the-road pop that sometimes seems to sell her short. Her reading of the standard "Body and Soul" hints at the potential of more daring song choices and arrangements.

Maybe by summer. For now, at least, cocktail connoisseurs must be content to be impressed with her fresh reading of "Wind Beneath My Wings," that "Feelings" of the '90s. It's a fitting anthem for a singer who is breathing new life into an old forum.