A few songs into the opening night of her Las Vegas residency, titled "All I Have," Jennifer Lopez laid out the agenda. "We gon' get to some singing," she said, prompting cheers. That's usually a no-duh announcement to make at a concert, but Lopez did inherit the 4,600-seat AXIS theater at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino from Britney Spears, who isn't known for her live vocals these days. "We gon' get to some dancing," she continued, to more applause. That a former In Living Color Fly Girl would be showing off her moves was no surprise either—though it sets Lopez apart from another Vegas star, Mariah Carey, who has never relied on intense choreography yet sometimes uses dancers to escort her around the stage like precious cargo.
Just like that, Lopez, 46, summed up the biggest draw of her show: the latest in a slew of pop stars to set up shop in Vegas, she brings a showmanship that's hard to top. A triple threat who balances her residency with a number of television commitments, Lopez effectively unites her talents to put on a spectacle as lively and extravagant as the city itself. When she announced, "There's a new girl in town!" it seemed aimed as much at her peers as the audience.
Las Vegas used to be where past-their-prime performers finished out their careers in peace and relative obscurity. That changed in 2003, when Celine Dion launched her pioneering "A New Day ..." residency, which grossed over $400 million in its five-year run thanks to a splashy mix of live music and state-of-the-art theatrics. Other stars followed--Elton John in 2004, Cher in 2008, Shania Twain in 2012--but now Vegas has become a hot ticket for capital-P Pop Stars as well: Spears' "Piece of Me" residency began in December 2013 and will kick off a two-year extension on Feb. 13 with a revamped show and set list; Carey, whose show features all 18 of her No. 1 hits performed chronologically, arrived last spring and just extended her stay into September.
These shows share DNA with Dion's, but just as crucial was the postrecession rise of Vegas' electronic dance music (EDM) scene. DJs and their untz-untz beats helped attract a younger class of Vegas goer—the share of tourists over 40 dropped from 71% in 2010 to 57% in 2014—and paved the way for contemporary pop. (It was only during the EDM-themed finale of Lopez's show that her audience got to its feet without prompting.) Lopez, Carey and Spears are also mothers to young children, and Vegas—a quick private-jet flight away from Los Angeles—offers stability as well as big paychecks: Lopez was reportedly offered $350,000 per show.
Of the bunch, it's Lopez who best bridges the gap between classic Vegas entertainment and strobe-lit clubs. Her two-hour show, whose second leg will run from May 22 to June 12, highlights the wide appeal of the catalog she has assembled over two decades. Audiences first see her as a jewel-covered Vegas showgirl singing hits like "Love Don't Cost a Thing." One costume change later, she's Jenny from the Block, jumping around a replica New York City subway car and pumping out her hip-hop tunes. A funk portion, a Latin-music tribute and the rave-inspired finale all follow, but J. Lo switches genres likes she switches outfits--quickly and seamlessly. The only constant is the sparkle.
Lopez bookends her show with generically inspirational monologues about following dreams and then achieving them. She'll have you believing she's America's hardest-working pop star, and she might be: her Vegas residency arrived the same month as a returning judging stint on American Idol and a starring role on the new NBC police procedural Shades of Blue. If anything, though, "All I Have" makes the more convincing case that she's America's most resilient diva.
Her final act juxtaposes "Waiting for Tonight" and "Dance Again," two Europop-inspired hits that stormed the charts almost 13 years apart; it's a sign that she's been around long enough to see EDM—and countless other trends—go in and out of style. Between those two songs, she had movies that bombed at the box office and others that dominated it. Her figure used to be, well, the butt of many jokes, but her legendary green Versace dress from the 2000 Grammys sits in a glass display case outside the venue, a selfie-ready reminder that before Nicki Minaj and Meghan Trainor took up the mantle for curvy women, Lopez was once the poster girl for distinctive derrieres. If the apocalypse comes, the sole survivor will be Jennifer Lopez, still shaking her hips and ready to give you more.
The only thing Lopez's show might be missing—and between the phalanx of dancers, hoverboards, holograms and more than 335,000 Swarovski crystals, there isn't a lot—is a back catalog as iconic as her competition's. During a striptease segment, she writhed around a chaise longue to "If You Had My Love," the show's opening number, as if she had already run out of songs. This shortcoming is most apparent during the ballads section, but not because she can't sing them: Lopez's cover of Lee Ann Womack's country crossover "I Hope You Dance" is competent, even moving—just not what anybody came for.
There is, however, an unexpected pleasure in watching Lopez take one of her weaker songs and flip it into something unrecognizably fiercer. During a horn-heavy rendition of "Hold It Don't Drop It," which didn't even crack Billboard's Hot 100, she slid down the stage on her knees with the charisma of a rock star (and the outfit of a sexy gladiator).
But it was Lopez's Latin-music set that ultimately gyrated its way to becoming the most electrifying part of "All I Have." It didn't really matter that a few of the songs—including "Quimbara" (made famous by Cuban star Celia Cruz) and "¿Quién Será?" (better known as Dean Martin's "Sway")—weren't her own, or even sung in English. She sounded the best she had all evening, and watching her relax into a one-woman salsa exhibition felt as climactic as the laser-filled, pyrotechnics-fueled finale that followed. If that were all she had to give, it would have been more than plenty.