For years, Olivia Newton-John mined the fluffy side of pop and country music. Breezy, but not to be taken seriously. That has changed with her new tour, her first in 16 years - and her first since surviving breast cancer in the early '90s.
Newton-John still flashed some of the bubblegum-pop persona of her early career on Thursday before 3,600 fans, but it was augmented by a new depth - and a healing spirit - that made this a captivating night.
''It was seven years ago this summer that I had breast cancer. Now, I'm free and I'm over it,'' she said, drawing a standing ovation led by many women in the crowd who clearly viewed her as a symbol of triumph.
Regardless of emotional or physical pain, please ''know that you can never give in to it,'' Newton-John, now 50, said. She then sang ''Never Gonna Give In,'' which prolonged the standing ovation. ''I feel so lucky. I'm healthy and I'm here,'' she said at the end of it.
Newton-John, who had 28 Top 40 hits starting in 1971 (with a cover of Bob Dylan's ''If not for You'') and ending in 1985, then surprised the crowd with a profoundly moving, unplugged segment dedicated to people who hadn't been as lucky. She sat on a stool and, backed by a lone guitarist, sang Paul McCartney's ''The Long and Winding Road'' in tribute to McCartney's wife, Linda, who died of breast cancer last year.
That was followed by John Denver's ''Take Me Home, Country Roads'' (Newton-John called him ''an honorable man, an environmentalist, and a friend''), the Carpenters' '' (They Long to Be) Close to You'' (she had been a close friend of the late Karen Carpenter), and a haunting ''The Flower That Shattered the Stone,'' dedicated to a 5-year-old girl (and friend of her daughter, Chloe) who had passed away.
This string of tunes could have pushed the bathos meter, but instead was an exalted example of Newton-John's richly earned compassion. Some fans gave her flowers at the end of the tribute (she shook the hand of one little girl in a wheelchair in return). Newton-John then sang a newer song, ''Back With a Heart,'' noting that ''the amazing thing about human beings is that we manage to bounce back.''
Technically speaking, Newton-John has never had a voice that would challenge any pop divas. But she retains a charming ability to entertain and now has a more expressive style. When she sang the pop standards ''Don't Cry for Me Argentina'' and '' Over the Rainbow,'' her maturity was evident.
Still radiant after all these years (and looking spectacular in a sheer pink outfit during the night's second half), Newton-John also did many of her lighter pop hits (''Have You Never Been Mellow'' and the aerobics anthem ''Physical'') and a few country tunes, notably Dolly Parton's ''Jolene.''
She capped the night with a medley from the 1978 film ''Grease'' (in which she played an ingenue to John Travolta's bad boy), leading her band through the irresistible pop thrills of ''You're the One That I Want'' and ''Summer Nights.'' The result was another standing ovation.
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last updated January 13, 2003