KMB Review: The Contra Costa Times

Midler keeps it timeless and tasteless
By Pat Craig

She casually announces she took a couple of years off for menopause, but her four-year absence from touring may really have been to lick the wounds inflicted by “Bette,” her ill-fated autobiographical CBS sitcom.

Menopause or not, though, the truth is she can now qualify for AARP membership. But it doesn’t matter in the least.

Her backup singers, the Harlettes, are new, Bette Midler explains, because only she is ageless.

That’s an understatement. And she proved it time and again for nearly three hours Saturday in a rollicking, hugely entertaining concert in San Jose’s HP Pavilion. It was high energy from the time she arrived on a flying merry-go-round horse (the show has a shoreside amusement park theme) to her encore.

Like Mick Jagger and Tina Turner, Midler’s driver’s license lists her age as “whatever.” Midler (OK, she’s 58) retains the passion to perform she had more than three decades ago when she was Bathhouse Bette, the singing dynamo in stiletto heels.

Her current Kiss My Brass Tour, which resumes Tuesday with a show at the Oakland Coliseum, is a kind of retrospective, with songs and bits from earlier performances, plus a taste of her current CD tribute to Rosemary Clooney, a punch in the eye for CBS, and a touching tribute to the late Mr. (Fred) Rogers.

Such an odd array of eclectic ideas is what makes the Divine Miss M unceasingly entertaining, as she minces about the stage in her far-too-high heels. She has turned outrageousness into an art form. While bare breasts at the Super Bowl and the sort of language that once made sailors blush on network television have made Midler’s mad oeuvre fairly mainstream, nobody comes close to doing it as well as ol’ red hair.

Blending silly production numbers with one of the most evocative and beautiful singing voices going, Midler’s shows become ventures into the pleasantly bizarre, ranging from revisiting some old tunes like “Chapel of Love,” and “Do You Want To Dance” to her non-musical channeling of an elderly woman with a penchant for dirty jokes, a Midler standard that is enormously funny, but could not be replicated in a family newspaper.

Her two-song tribute to Clooney, featuring “C’mon To My House,” and “Hey There,” was well done — the tunes were performed with enough skill to honor Clooney’s memory, but with just enough of a twist (a youngster skipping behind her, licking a candy cane during “C’mon To My House), to make certain you know it is Midler claiming the tunes as her own.

Somewhat less successful is her swipe at CBS for the sitcom disaster. She has Judge Judy on video, conducting a hearing between Midler and the CBS eye, who is declared the winner. The judge orders Midler to apologize to everyone who owns a TV set. It’s kind of a lame bit, but leads into her singing of, “I’m Sorry,” and making another tune a Midler gem.

Her video/live tribute to Mr. Rogers is more successful — essentially she sings along with him on “I Like To Be Told” and thanks him for his years of teaching kindness and understanding. Sadly, this leads to her uncomfortably ill-wrought political talk. She appeared uncomfortable doing it, and, although she punched the right audience buttons, those listening appeared to be interested in having Midler do other things.

Like Delores Delago(the toast of Chicago), her familiar mermaid character who rides in an electric wheelchair, is backed by the Harlettes in similar garb and chairs, and turns Broadway into a giant fishpond.

Midler has the perfect, belt-’em-out Broadway voice, but until you’ve heard her do Broadway Delago style, well, it’s just downright weird hearing a mermaid singing, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” And then, the lyrics to Chicago’s “All That Jazz” have been changed to “all that shad,” making her Broadway tribute even more fishy.

Essentially, what Miss M does is present a one-woman variety show (with a great supporting cast). If you can imagine Mae West, Sophie Tucker and Fanny Brice sharing the same body to perform a wild vaudeville show, then you get the basic idea of what Midler does.

She is a one-off delight, a national treasure, and, like she says, ageless.

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