Mariah Carey | Liza Minnelli and David Gest

Mariah's Vegas Gamble Pays Off

I had a feeling this was going to be something special. I was right.

Mariah Carey (search) kicked off her American tour Saturday night at the Colosseum in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, the same place where Celine Dion (search) is installed as the regular performer, and she hit a grand-slam home run.

With a controlled, powerful belting instrument of a voice, Carey put to rest all past intimations of stage fright or uncertainty. Her one-hour, forty-five minute performance of hit songs — in front of a sold-out-to-the-last-seat room — was so confident I almost couldn’t believe she was the same person.

Carey’s choice of this "intimate" setting — all terms being relative, the Colosseum seats about 4,000 —  reflects (besides a tough summer for selling tickets) a real sensibility about her spectacular voice.

She is front and center for most of the show, with about a dozen dancers and backup singers discreetly interwoven into the action. But unlike some other young divettes who cover their lack of singing ability with stage traffic, Carey is out there by herself.

She rarely uses one of those new-fangled headset microphones. Instead she grips her hand mike as if it were a baseball bat while she commandingly sings every one of her hits — from "Dreamlover" to "Vision of Love" to the Jackson 5’s "I’ll Be There" — with heretofore unknown authority.

Who knew she could do it? And who knew she could do it wearing a series of skimpy micro-miniskirts that show off hard-as-rock thighs worthy of the Valkyries?

Carey’s Vegas show marked her return to the U.S. after a month in Asia preparing the show and fine-tuning it. The plan worked.

She made her entrance on a set that’s designed like a sunken living room in a hip Paris apartment or a very cool Starbucks. There are couches and easy chairs scattered about, and the sensibility is intimate, fairly unglitzy elegance. The singers and dancers are scattered about as if they were Mariah’s pals who’d dropped by to hang out with her.

In fact, there were times — even when Carey wears a Marilyn Monroe-inspired gold lamé gown or a feathery full-length Roberto Cavalli number — that you feel you’ve wandered either into Loretta Young’s old TV show or a Broadway offering by a new, undiscovered talent.

The other good news is that Carey — whose voice was in top condition thanks to a two-day rest — has dropped about 95 percent of the melismatic yodeling that afflicted many of her records in the late 1990s.

Her voice — again which many thought might have lost its power or tone — is strong and she’s using it with much more control. She’s hitting the notes dead-on and letting them blossom. The result is you feel like you’re listening to her great debut album, before the gimmickry set in.

A few times during the show she sips some herbal tea, which has some kind of soothing effect on her instrument.

Now, if you don’t believe me, I can tell you that Carey had two guests in the audience who are much harsher judges. Her sometime producer, Randy Jackson (search), the American Idol judge who is newly slimmed-down after gastric-bypass surgery, was one.

OK, he’s a judge, but he also works for Carey, so he can’t be considered totally objective about his raving over the show.

The other guest, though, was unknown to everyone until she visited Carey backstage afterwards: Nancy Wilson, the legendary jazz and blues singer, who’s seen it all, nearly pushed an entire room of waiting fans aside to meet Mariah.

She gushed, and when she left, Carey — wearing a butterfly print dress — called to everyone in the room: "Uh Hello? That was Nancy Wilson!"

And so to the show: Many of the songs from her so-so selling album Charmbracelet are included, and they work better than you might think. The ballad "Through the Rain" gains a lot of energy in this minimal setting because Carey doesn’t push it. The gospel number "My Saving Grace," which others might have done with a fully costumed, over-the-top choir, is performed with amazing restraint.

Carey also has to deal with the audience, which was very mixed in age and race but also included a number of her devoted, shall we say "extreme," fans. There were even a few Carey imitators, and they were not women. (Mariah, who is tall, inspires this, I guess.)

Because there is no orchestra pit at the Colosseum, a group of these hardy fanatics was able to stand very near the stage during the show. They sang along with every song, having memorized all the lyrics (and that’s no small feat considering a preponderance of them are no moon-June-spoon but missives about "self-empowerment").

During a terrific duet with Trey Lorenz on "I’ll Be There," one of this group — a young Asian man from San Francisco named Sam — took Carey’s offer to sing along too seriously and jumped on stage.

The surprise of it didn’t faze her — Mariah played along with amazing aplomb — although Lorenz looked a little shocked. He said into the open mike, "I don’t know about this, fans coming on stage."

Luckily Sam was harmless, but something tells me this won’t be happening again anytime soon.

Two numbers in the show refer vaguely to Carey’s problems with her ex-husband, former Sony chief Tommy Mottola (search). One, a new song called "Clown," is positioned in a circus setting, with calliope music as the introduction.

While Carey sings from the side, business-suited actors on stilts with sinister "Nixon" masks perform a tug-of-war with a female puppet on strings. This is actually called "The Marionette Show" and is as subtle as a flying mallet.

Carey also shows, on a screen during a costume change, the video for her song "Honey." This is the "James Bond" video in which she’s held hostage by a Mottola look-alike and his thugs, then breaks free and is rescued by a hunk on a jet ski. Only the first part, with the Mottola imitator, is shown, but you get the message.

After the show, a member of Carey’s entourage told me an enlightening story from Mariah’s days with "TM," which is how she refers to her ex.

"He took her to Rao’s [the famous and exclusive Italian bistro in East Harlem where you can’t get a table]. Paul Anka was there. TM said, 'It’s Paul Anka!' He’d never met him.

"And Mariah, who was pretty young, had never heard of him. Tommy couldn’t believe it. He got up, went over to Anka, and said: ‘This is Mariah Carey! She’s never heard of you! Can you believe it?’ It was humiliating."

When the show is finally over, and Mariah’s sung her signature song "Vision of Love" and the fan favorite "Hero," the work is not over.

I watched while she posed for pictures with countless numbers of fans, including members of her "Honey Bear" fan club, with not only incredible patience but also enthusiasm.

She is not cynical about these lines of supporters who come with scrapbooks they bring to her as gifts. To be provocative I asked her during a two-second break: "Why don’t you just kick them out and say good night? You just sang for two hours. I can’t believe you’re not throwing a diva fit."

Mariah (who in platform shoes trains her head slightly down toward me, and I’m five foot ten) narrowed her eyes.

"I know," she sighed, "it’s so boring. Why don’t you say that I ran around and pulled all these pictures off the wall? It’s terrible being normal."

Carey heads next to Chicago for a Tuesday night show and then on through the U.S. She winds up at Radio City Music Hall on Sept. 26, where the long knives of New York's entertainment writers (me included) will no doubt be sharpened and out for blood.

But what a disappointment Mariah's arrival will be for them! Whoever thought she'd get the last laugh? Certainly not me.

More tomorrow from Las Vegas, where — judging by the appearance of the general public — Weight Watchers or the Zone diet would do well to set up food kiosks every 20 feet …

Liza's David: No Foundation After All

The word is out: Liza Minnelli and David Gest are over. After a year and four months. Give or take. Some might say the marriage had no foundation. But Gest also has no foundation now.

For years Gest ran something called the American Cinema Foundation. It wasn't clear what it did, but for a long time Gest collected a tax-free fee from the charity in the neighborhood of $150,000. He also listed quite sincerely dead former studio head Leo Jaffe as its president.

When this column and thesmokinggun.com caught Gest in these actions, he eventually let Jaffe go. But the foundation itself remained. Now, according to its latest tax return, American Cinema Foundation has ceased operations.

According to its federal tax filing, ACF finished the 2002 fiscal year with $429 in revenues. But it also had a $31,319 deficit. Gest for some reason gave $7,500 to New York University, which is sort of like giving sand to the Arabs or water to aquariums. Well, you pick the metaphor. NYU is so rich they've swallowed Greenwich Village whole. They don't need David Gest's tax-free money.

Earlier this year Gest announced that he was working with longtime pal Michael Jackson on a documentary about the singer's life. But that never happened. Additionally, Gest took over management of Minnelli's career, which resulted in more weird publicity than revenues. Her concert album on J Records was a rare dud for the label.

What will Gest do now that Minnelli has evidently figured a bunch of things out? One can only imagine. He still has his rumored collection of Shirley Temple memorabilia. Maybe he can sell that for income.

But I do think his Jacko-Liza connection has been broken for good. Jackson's new handlers certainly won't let him muscle back into any of the singer's business. And it's likely that Minnelli's friends will encourage her to find a new manager herself.

The big question now is the pre-nup. Oh, Liza, let's hope you made him sign one!