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The J.Lo Effect: How the Strip’s newest star might evolve the Vegas residency

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Lopez is in her prime, and she’s bringing her star power to the heart of Vegas entertainment.

At the American Music Awards in LA this past November, the curtain opened to host Jennifer Lopez posed among a clan of backup dancers. In a glittering, tribal-print bodysuit and hulking fur coat, Lopez raised a mic and plunged into a dramatic rendition of “Waiting for Tonight.” As she leaned into the notes, her voice clear and confident, it felt like Lopez was trying to tell us something beyond how long she had been waiting for this very evening.

Don’t forget, she seemed to croon. I can sing.

Then she stopped. “Wait, don’t clap,” she told the celeb-saturated audience. “Tonight’s not about me. Tonight’s about the music. … And this year’s music made me want to dance.”

With that, Lopez launched into a furious dance medley set to 2015’s biggest hits. She salsa-ed to Skrillex and Justin Bieber. She body-rolled to Nicki Minaj. She marched to Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” and staged a micro-orgy to The Weeknd’s “I Can’t Feel My Face.” She did Drake’s “Hotline Bling” leg wobble better than Drake.

By the time Rihanna’s voice blasted from the speakers six minutes later, Lopez had conquered the Microsoft Theater so completely, she might as well have stabbed a flag through the floor. While fake bills flew from the ceiling and the crowd cheered, Lopez posed above her new subjects as their diva queen, dominator of industries, unstoppable entertainment force.

Given her charisma onstage and massive, enduring appeal, Lopez belongs on the Strip.

Given her charisma onstage and massive, enduring appeal, Lopez belongs on the Strip.

Though she’s seen her share of flops and failures over a 25-year career, Lopez is seemingly still at the top of her game, which isn’t so much ruling any one particular segment as staying strong across many. She’s worked her way through show business piece by piece, from dancing as a Fly Girl on In Living Color, to starring as Selena in the film by the same name, to releasing her first album, On the 6, which landed Lopez atop the Billboard charts in 1999 with “If You Had My Love.”

When J.Lo debuted a few years later, it hit No. 1 the same week goofy rom-com The Wedding Planner won big at the box office, making Lopez the first person to have the top-grossing film and the No. 1 album in the same week.

But the Bronx native hasn’t exactly stayed in her lane(s). Today, at 46, the mother of twins is the embodiment of the modern celebrity mogul: She’s branched into fashion and fragrance. She’s released a Spanish-language album. She owns a production company, has a new TV show and is currently judging her fifth season of American Idol. Diversified is understatement; Lopez is a Swiss army knife.

With so much on her proverbial plate, conventional wisdom would dictate that she’s still at least a decade shy of succumbing to a resident show on the Las Vegas Strip. But Lopez, whose All I Have residency debuts at Planet Hollywood on January 20, isn’t an anomaly. She’s the foaming edge of a tsunami wave that’s been cresting in Vegas for the past few years and has swept up artists like Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Pitbull and Bruno Mars. For more performers and more relevant ones, Las Vegas isn’t an inevitable stop on the downward slope of the fame parabola, but a place to make money and reach fans from around the world right now.

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To understand the transformation of the artist residency in Las Vegas, you have to start with Celine Dion—Quebecois royalty, singer of the Titanic theme, Strip über headliner.

Icon status: Celine Dion has earned her place as a legend of the stage.

Icon status: Celine Dion has earned her place as a legend of the stage.

“I give a lot of credit to Celine for really changing that mind-set,” says Jason Gastwirth, senior vice president of marketing and entertainment for Caesars Entertainment. “She had her Colosseum start not having reached the height of her career yet.”

That happened back in 2003, when Celine/Franco Dragone collaboration A New Day… opened at the freshly built 4,000-seat venue. In its first year, the show grossed $80.5 million, according to Pollstar, more than every North American tour except Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band. In 2004 A New Day… did it again, ranking second with $80.4 million, behind Prince. By the time the show closed in 2007, it had raked in more than $385 million without ever leaving the Strip. Celine proved that a Vegas headlining gig could be big, bold and, most importantly, profitable.

Since then, other megastars and artists closer to—if not fully astride—their prime have followed: Garth Brooks came out of retirement in 2009 to play acoustic tunes at the Wynn. Shania Twain arrived at Caesars Palace with a 40-horse escort in 2012. Faith Hill and Tim McGraw put on a cozy country show at the Venetian, and Bruno Mars took a break from his nearly sold-out Moonshine Jungle tour for a run at the Cosmopolitan. Meanwhile the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino has evolved the residency concept, subbing out the sequined star soloist for bands like Guns N’ Rose, Kiss and Mötley Crüe.

“A few years ago you talked about residencies and no one knew what you were talking about,” Gastwirth says. “Now, it’s a part of the vernacular.”

And the roster goes on: Mariah Carey at Caesars Palace, Pitbull at Planet Hollywood. In October, Britney Spears announced that her Vegas show, Piece of Me, would run for two more years inside PH’s Axis Theater, and 2016 is bringing not only Jennifer Lopez, but also Billy Idol, Lionel Richie and John Fogerty to Strip stages.

For artists, Gastwirth says, resident shows have obvious appeal. Instead of schlepping around the country, they stay put and the audience comes to them. There’s no packing the sets onto trucks, no staging surprises, no “I can’t hear you, Cleveland!” Shows can be custom-built for the venue, which might be smaller than what they typically play on the road.

Looking forward, Gastwirth thinks we’ll see more genre diversity among headliners. “I think we’ll see artists who are pursuing residencies earlier in their careers.”

After Broadway ambitions and Cirque du Soleil’s Strip coup, Vegas has entered the age of the headliner. “Vegas is all about giving our guests experiences they can’t get anywhere else,” Gastwirth says, “and the resident model is that right now.”

*****

“It’s like an entertainer’s dream.” That’s how J.Lo described her upcoming Planet Hollywood gig on Ellen back in May.

Jennifer Lopez hosts the 2015 American Music Awards on Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

Jennifer Lopez hosts the 2015 American Music Awards on Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

“When I was setting out to do my world tour in 2012, I had all these crazy ideas for the stage,” Lopez tells the Weekly, “and I was told logistically you can’t do that, ’cause we have to tear down the show and rebuild it again the next night in a new city. That isn’t the case this time around. I can let my mind go wild and be as creative as I want, since we have the luxury of being in the same place every night.”

But she can’t go wild alone. To bring her fantasy production into reality, Lopez has enlisted a few of her regular collaborators, show directors and choreographers Napoleon and Tabitha D’umo and stylists Rob Zangardi and Mariel Haenn. “It’s been a really fast push,” says Napoleon over the phone from LA during a break in rehearsals. “Normally we get about six months to put up a show, and we’re doing this thing in less than 12 weeks.”

That doesn’t mean they’ve scaled back on costumes, choreography for the 16 backup dancers or arrangements for the live band. While Lopez could probably get away with throwing on a rhinestone jumpsuit and belting out her hits, taking the obvious route has never been her thing.

“Over the years I have seen a lot of shows in Vegas,” she says. “I am excited to do my take on Vegas, my own spin on it.”

Napoleon describes All I Have as “theater meets pop show,” a seven-act spectacular with each section devoted to showcasing Lopez through a different genre. That means Broadway and hip-hop, funk and burlesque, ballads and Latin, for which they brought in special salsa instructors from Colombia. Lest you feel like you’ve missed out on Ms. Lopez’s classic club-ready style, the show will end with a set of on-your-feet EDM, J.Lo turning Axis into her own private dance party before the lights come up.

“We’re doing a seven-act show and we’re changing the sets seven times, which is unheard of,” Napoleon says.

And since Lopez has long been a fashion icon, each act comes with its own distinctive outfit, custom-designed by the likes of Versace and Zuhair Murad.

“If she already loves sparkle and everything over-the-top and glamorous, Vegas is the perfect spot to do that,” stylist Haenn says. “You almost have to go really big or go home, because if you’re not going to go really big there, where do you?”

Jennifer Lopez performs during Day 2 of the 2015 iHeartRadio Music Festival on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, at MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Jennifer Lopez performs during Day 2 of the 2015 iHeartRadio Music Festival on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, at MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Napoleon and Tabitha know something about designing a show for the Strip. The duo met while attending UNLV, and though they’re widely recognized for their “lyrical hip-hop” choreography on So You Think You Can Dance, they’ve also directed the Jabbawockeez’s Vegas show, choreographed for Cirque and worked with artists like Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin and, of course, Lopez.

They describe her as the “best in the biz—one of the hardest-working artists out there.”

When you talk about Lopez with her inner circle, that’s a common refrain: the crazy schedule, the intense work ethic, the sense that though she’s juggling a dozen projects, she’s pouring herself into all of them. Even those close to her, who talk to Lopez every day, seem a little in awe.

Which is understandable. Jenny from the block didn’t just shake her empirically incredible bidibidibombom and—poof!—transform into an icon. She spent the past 25 years working, building her career from backup dancer to what it is today, a multi-industry phenomenon that can’t be reduced to titles like “singer” or “actress.”

“You know, I just really like to work,” she says. “I guess maybe a bit too much with everything going on, but I love what I do.”

What Lopez hasn’t done much over those 25 years is tour. Other than a short run of dates in 2007 with then-husband Marc Anthony, she’s only toured once: the Dance Again World Tour in 2012.

“A lot of fans complain about that to me,” she told Degeneres in May. “So, I’ll be in Vegas. You can come see me.”

Jennifer Lopez arrives at the 2015 iHeartRadio Music Festival red carpet Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, at MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Jennifer Lopez arrives at the 2015 iHeartRadio Music Festival red carpet Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, at MGM Grand Garden Arena.

In some ways, then, this residency is the logical next step for a woman who has checked nearly every box in the entertainment space. Missing from her long list of accomplishments: Put on a legendary tour. All I Have could be that tour, the one people talk about. The one they remember.

For now, though, it’s still rehearsals and fittings, putting on the final touches in that last frantic sprint to opening night.

Stylist Haenn says that sometimes in the day-to-day hustle of advanced planning and immediate deadlines, she can lose sight of the bigger picture, of what she and Zangardi and Napoleon and Tabitha and Lopez are all creating together.

“When you do get to stand back and see her onstage, it’s sort of like, ‘Oh my God, holy sh*t.’” Haenn says. The stress, the long hours, the inevitable hurdles and last-minute changes, seeing Lopez under the lights puts it all in perspective. “She is the one who has to go up there and perform and look amazing and sound amazing and remember every step and every word to every song. That’s a tremendous amount of pressure. It’s just like, ‘Wow. She is just amazing.’”

Celine proved that a Vegas residency could be profitable. Now, more than 10 years later, maybe it’s Lopez, the ageless beauty whose star never seems to fade, who will take the residency to its next evolutionary step.

Jennifer Lopez: All I Have January 20-June 12; dates vary, 9 p.m., $79-$239. Axis Theater at Planet Hollywood, 866-919-7472.

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