LAS VEGAS, Nev. - Shania Twain roared into her first live show in more than eight years perched atop a glistening motorcycle on Saturday, dangling on wires at least three metres in the air in a sequined black catsuit, her thick brown hair flowing behind her.
Without singing a word, she then received her first standing ovation from an adoring Caesars Palace audience.
Shania was back. And her new Las Vegas digs seemed an even better fit for the Canadian-bred country starlet than the skin-tight costume she wore as she stomped her thigh-high black boots back across the stage for the first time since July 2004.
Next, fierce guitars cut like buzzsaws as her 13-piece band launched into "I'm Gonna Getcha Good" and Twain strutted about the stage as if she'd never left. But of course, she did leave — and she didn't let the sold-out crowd forget that they were witnessing a tough, triumphant moment for the 47-year-old many still consider the Queen of Country.
"Thank you. Thank you so much — you guys are going to get me all emotional, and then my eyelashes are going to fall off," said Twain, dabbing at her eyes as she addressed the audience for the first time.
"This is a very overwhelming night.... It's been a lot of years for me since I've been here.
"I realize what I've been missing, thanks to you."
And yet, this 100-minute show — titled "Shania: Still the One" — was at once a callback to one of the most successful runs in recent music history as well as a chic, cheeky look toward a new era in Twain's career.
And she certainly looked rejuvenated. She laughed often — even when it threatened to throw off her delicate diction — she blew kisses, she waded into the crowd, she mimed cymbal smashes and occasionally tossed off seemingly improvised dance moves imbued with the spontaneous joy of someone lost in the moment.
"You guys having a good time so far?" she asked halfway through her set.
"I hope so, 'cause that's the only reason I do this.... Otherwise I would just stay on my lonesome and sing."
Yes, Twain still effortlessly projected the warmly accessible cowgirl next door — even while wholeheartedly embracing the glitz and sizzle expected on the Las Vegas Strip.
The production values of the show were, indeed, dazzling. Performing at the Colosseum — a gloriously high-ceilinged, 4,298-seat modern replica of the Roman architectural marvel — inside sprawling Caesars Palace, Twain's show featured no shortage of splashy surprises.
She first sent a jolt through the crowd by charging onstage on the back of a black stallion before launching into a rowdy take on "Ain't No Quitter" with the stage decorated to look like a Wild West saloon.
During "That Don't Impress Me Much," meanwhile, huge metal pipes churned out smoke on either side of the stage while snarling leopards were projected on the walls.
And during "You're Still the One," she trotted onstage on a different horse — a white equine this time — before gently frolicking with it throughout the performance, confetti shaped like snowflakes falling from the sky.
The entire time, a high-definition screen behind her beamed kaleidoscopic visuals or all-new film clips starring Twain herself, helping along a narrative that the singer has said tells her own story.
Saturday's show was extra meaningful in part because Twain has been in vocal rehabilitation for years, since reporting the sudden loss of her voice following her painful split from studio wizard and key creative collaborator Robert (Mutt) Lange.
If Twain showed hints of rust in her voice early, she only sounded more robust and comfortable as the gig went on, setting an especially lofty mark for herself during a lovely version of "From This Moment On," with billowing white curtains fluttering overhead, smoke languidly filling the air around her feet and tribal drummers hammering away on either side of the stage.
And even her less sure-footed moments didn't slow her momentum. Although the event was tightly produced, it was also relaxed, and Twain let her banter flow naturally even if it slowed the pace of the slick show.
"I know I'm talking a lot," she said with self-awareness at one point. "But this is the first opening night — I can't help myself."
While the show was a family friendly affair, Twain also proved that after nearly a decade spent out of the public eye she's still not shy about tapping into the power of her sex appeal — and this is, after all, Vegas.
One video depicted her writhing about on a couch in lingerie, while another in the Wild West motif showed a steely-eyed Twain marching into a dusty town clad in a cowboy hat, long coat and bustier, eliciting enthusiastic whistles from a couple approving audience members.
Twain was arguably the first country star to take full advantage of MTV, and many of the outfits she wore paid homage to memorable duds from videos past.
She wore a modified version of the leopard-print hooded robe familiar from the "That Don't Impress Me Much" clip and kicked off an encore performance of "Man! I Feel Like a Woman" in the familiar black undertaker's coat and bowler hat with veil.
She cycled through a series of other outfits: a sparkling pink western button-down with matching cowboy boots and jeans; a glittering tank top with baggy animal-print pants; a glamorous long white gown that perfectly set the tone for "You're Still the One." Somehow, everything fit — both the ageless Twain and her show.
As for the selection of songs, well, Twain stuck to the best-known tunes. And let's face it: she has hits like Pete Rose.
To quickly recap Twain's stunning commercial achievements: two double-diamond albums in Canada (1997's "Come On Over" and 2002's "Up!") plus her 1995 breakthrough "The Woman in Me," which "only" went diamond once.
"Come On Over" is still the best-selling studio album by a female act and best-selling country album of all time. And she's sold more than 75 million albums worldwide.
Twain's sound fused slickly catchy country-pop with the swelling choruses of arena rock and, as her career went on, increasing elements of adult contemporary pop — but much of her show seemed instead focused on her country side.
Twain's initial run will include 10 performances through Dec. 15, with the next 14-show engagement beginning March 19.
It's still unclear whether Twain has the globe-spanning appeal of Celine Dion, whose own residency at the Colosseum has become one of Las Vegas's premiere attractions. But certainly, Twain's debut didn't lack for hype in a city known for little else.
On the Las Vegas Strip, an overwhelming, overstimulated bemusement park smothered in ads and billboards competing for your attention and money, Twain has still stood out.
Weeks ago, she paraded up the Strip with a herd of 40 horses, in some ways calling to mind Frank Sinatra's heralded arrival on a camel at the old Dunes hotel back in September 1955. Now, the Strip is dotted with "Still the One" billboards, depicting Twain nuzzling a horse.
Around the Colosseum, a gift shop hawks an imaginative array of Twain-branded baubles, including replica bowler hats, T-shirts depicting silvery studded horses, perfumes, scented candles, moisturizing body lotions, pint glasses, shot glasses, mugs featuring her lyrics, magnets, baseball caps, pink wicker cowboy hats and key-chains with beer-bottle openers.
Still, some fans weren't sated.
"I was just bummed there wasn't any more men's merchandise," said 35-year-old Phoenix native Shawn Patrick.
Taking in the excitement over the show, one thing was clear: in a town lousy with attractions, Twain's production seemed like a destination event.
"I just had to be here for the opening night. Just had to," said Louyse Ooscdijk, 24, who made the trip from Zwolle, Netherlands and wore a grey sweater featuring a self-made design reading: "I travelled 5,377 miles to see Shania Twain in Las Vegas."
Adriana Hernandez had waited a long time to see Twain, too. The 35-year-old travelled from Miami with her daughter to see the show, her first.
Hernandez, like other fans, said she identified strongly with Twain's personal story, her capacity to overcome poverty, loss and heartbreak.
"I can empathize because I have something similar in my background," Hernandez said. "Knowing that she had so little when she was a kid, and now that she has accomplished so much but she hasn't forgotten where she came from, is amazing.
"She's a human being, then an artist."
To Twain's fans, then, it made perfect sense to see the singer weave her life story into her production.
On the eve of her grand debut, Twain had warned that much of her show was "more real than it probably should be."
And "Shania: Still the One" did reference her notoriously difficult past — a childhood mired in poverty in Timmins, a fractured family with parents whose volatile, violent marriage ended in a fatal car accident leaving a 22-year-old Twain as sole provider for her siblings.
The heart of the show seemed to lie in a section devoted to her roots. With images of a forest projected behind her and the stage arranged to look like a campfire, a casually clad Twain (wearing cut-off jean shorts, a long-sleeved grey top and knee-high tan boots) invited a selection of gob-smacked fans onstage, along with her sister Carrie-Ann (marking their first public duet since they were pre-teens) and Canadian songwriting duo RyanDan.
She took the opportunity to reflect on her origins.
"We were the hicks from the sticks. We really didn't have much," she said of her family, before paying moving tribute to her mom.
"I talk about my mother a lot because I miss her. She passed away a long time ago and she never got to see any of my success.... I wouldn't have made it onstage without her. So it's kind of sad she couldn't see it."
Any hint of solemnity evaporated quickly, as Twain was careful not to disturb the buoyancy of the production.
She immediately led the motley crew of singers assembled in a restrained singalong version of "Come On Over," "Rock This Country" and "Today Is Your Day."
It represented a truly sweet moment that seemed to only further smooth any remaining nerves Twain had. It was also a reminder of the sole aim of her new show — a big-budget, mass-appeal Las Vegas spectacle that still somehow felt personal, and always uniquely Twain's.
"I want you to forget all the troubles that are waiting for you on your cell phones when you go," she said, letting out a laugh.
"We're here to cheer up."