The Divine Miss M lives up to her heavenly moniker
Joel Selvin, Chronicle Senior Pop Music Critic
Monday, February 9, 2004
Bette Midler stood with her head poking out of the top of a tent. She was wearing the peak like a hat. “The things I do for you,” she reminded the audience.
She made her entrance floating down to stage riding a carousel horse, waving like a princess, her million-watt smile bordering on maniacal. Her background vocalists were dressed in tutus and tam-o’-shanters. The Divine One herself was wearing a jaunty sailor’s suit complete with one of those cute little hats. She sang soaring ballads. She told dirty jokes. She rolled around in a pedal-driven swan car with a personalized license plate reading “Miss M.”
Back doing what she does best, what only she can do, Bette Midler, the Divine Miss M, was back in town, singing, dancing, making funny on her new “Kiss My Brass” tour before a capacity crowd Saturday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose (she appears Tuesday at the Oakland Arena).
Only Bette Midler’s sense of the grand and ridiculous can encompass the vast territory reflected by a repertoire that included a heartfelt Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” a surprisingly convincing Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” and a wicked Tom Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers.” Her most touching moment, however, came with a video duet with the late children’s TV host Fred Rogers, as she sang along on the warm, simple, direct “I Like to Be Told.”
Of course, Dolores the Fish Woman and her three befinned associates charged around on the electric wheelchairs, but choreographer Toni Basil (whose resume goes back to “Shindig”) got the fish out of the chairs, got them flopping around on the stage and had Dolores riding down a golden staircase on a clamshell-shaped elevator chair (“Try this, Cher,” she shouted gleefully), only one of a number of eye-popping geegaws from set designer Michael Cotten.
Midler manages to convey the intimacy of a cabaret singer in a Broadway theater setting. Performing on a giant proscenium stage built to suggest Coney Island in the 1890s, she was never dwarfed by the extravagant production. She lit up the far reaches of the dark arena with just the saucy glint out of the corner of her eye.
The act hasn’t changed in years. Not broken. She has, in fact, honed her show into one of show business’ all-time classics, something that has more in common with vaudeville and stage acts from before her time than the more rock- oriented performers of her own generation. “You gotta love me,” she said. “Who else are you going to love — Mariah?”
She brought the show to a predictable climax with the inevitable sober, highly dramatic versions of “From a Distance,” “Do You Wanna Dance” and “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” each song something she has managed to turn into a personal trademark. But then, earlier in the evening, this same woman, dressed as a devil with horns and a tail, sang “Nobody But the Jews” — a song that asks who misses her canceled television series.
Nobody was ever any better at ingratiating themselves with an audience. She whipped out a few well-researched local jokes early on (“San Jose Arena? Compaq Center? HP Pavilion? This place has been called more names than Larry Ellison”). She had no less than TV’s Judge Judy sentence her (via videotape) to apologize to all television viewers for her failed TV series. She cited one song, “Stuff Like That There,” as coming from “my 1992 bomb, ‘For the Boys.’ ”
At this point, her aura is golden. She wears it like a halo. There may be better singers than her. There may be funnier comedians. But as an all-around entertainer, onstage in front of an audience, nobody can match Bette Midler.