KMB Review: San Diego

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Photo: Brian P

Big heart, big soul make for big night
By Lee Grant
San Diego Union-Tribune

February 20, 2004

“Come on-a my house . . . I’m gonna give you everything.”
– a song by Rosemary Clooney
It was Bette Midler’s house Wednesday night at the San Diego Sports Arena, and she gave her thousands of guests everything – spectacular Broadway numbers, poignant solo tunes, singalongs, loads of bawdy jokes and misty reminiscences.

There were two songs from her fine new album, “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook,” one of them “Come On-A My House,” the other “Hey There,” both from the ’50s. Midler savored them, showing deep respect for someone who’d been called “one of the best friends a song ever had.” With vintage portraits of Clooney hanging from the ceiling, Midler said, “She’s such a big soul.”

And so is Midler, 58, named by her mother for actress Bette Davis, then changing the pronunciation to Bet. This night, she treated her audience like buddies, sharing gossip and laughs, heartaches and tears. As for San Diego, she was glad to be back (Midler last performed here in 1999).

“Ah, the San Diego Sports Arena,” she said, taking in the huge, creaky cavern, “where famous people yearn to play . . . home of the Gulls, the only San Diego team that actually wins. (Pause) Then there’s beautiful Petco Park, the only stadium that has a water dish at every seat and a chew toy.”

This was the tone of the night, Midler’s comedic gifts often overshadowing her musical ones. She called the folks down front (top ticket price: $154) “my own little Rancho Santa Fe.”

Midler arrived wearing a nautical-style ensemble while suspended on a white carousel horse (the show’s elaborate set re-created a turn-of-the-century Coney Island). “I had to wrestle a sailor to the ground in Coronado for this outfit,” she said.

When she got to the songs, particularly the ballads like Tom Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers,” they had the Midler aura – poignant, notes lovingly caressed. On the Hoagy Carmichael-Johnny Mercer tune “Skylark,” she sang simply, hands on hips, her warm voice making its way to the rafters despite wretched acoustics (even for the notorious Sports Arena) that muddied the words.

Midler still performs with her “staggering” backup group, The Harlettes, of which, she said, “We have a great relationship. They adore me and I pay them.” The trashy trio joined her on “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” Midler’s nifty hit of the classic Andrew Sisters tune. In a clever staging, three screens were synchronized with video of previous Midler performances of the song, each at a different stage of her career – that’s four Midlers and the three Harlettes all vocalizing together.

There was one real flop chunk in the nearly three-hour show. Midler carries a grudge against CBS for dumping her short-lived TV sitcom in 2000. In a forced bit, a filmed episode of “Judge Judy” was created with Midler facing off against a CBS executive whose entire head was the network’s logo. In the end, Judge Judy ordered Midler to “apologize to every person who ever owned a TV set.”

A moment that did work was Midler’s rendition of “Chapel of Love” (first performed by her in 1972 on “The Divine Miss M” album). As she sang, “Going to the chapel, and we’re going to get married,” photos of famous couples that have broken up flashed on a screen – Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie, Anne Heche and Ellen DeGeneres, Jennifer Lopez and three guys (including a certain actor), Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley, Liza Minnelli and David Gest.

Observed Midler, “People in show business should not intermarry or breed.”

Near evening’s end, Midler delivered the songs with which she’s most identified – “From a Distance” (honed to a gospel-like passion); “Do You Want to Dance” (Midler sliding and strutting gracefully across the stage: “You wanna dance with me, baby?”), and “Wind Beneath My Wings” (Grammys’ Record of the Year in 1989).

It ended with “The Rose,” Midler inviting the gathered: “Won’t you sing with me?” They did. Noted she, to the throng, “You sound good.”

You, too, Miss M.

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