Photo: Todd Kaplan
It’s taken me 35 years to finally get to see Bette Midler live in concert, and now I understand why Midler is, to fans and critics alike, simply divine.
Last Saturday night — with an audience that boasted Sarah Jessica Parker, Polly Bergen, Christine Ebersole and Veanne Cox — I had the chance to catch Midler’s current concert tour, the lavishly and smoothly staged Kiss My Brass at the Meadowlands’ Continental Arena in New Jersey. Onstage, Midler — who has never looked or sounded better — is a thrilling mix of singer, comedienne and social commentator. The multi-talented performer made a grand entrance, descending from the heavens on a merry-go-round rocking horse. She proceeded to belt the hell out of “Kiss My Brass” before launching into “Big Noise from Winnetka” and “Stuff Like That There,” the latter a tune from her 1991 WWII film “For the Boys.” Midler was also ably supported by her three newly minted Harlettes, Broadway’s big-voiced Kyra Da Costa, Kamilah Martin and Nicolette Hart.
I was utterly impressed by Midler’s musicianship during her rendition of the Johnny Mercer-Hoagy Carmichael standard “Skylark.” Midler played off the melody line at the song’s beginning and then offered a beautiful take on the classic tune about searching for true love.
Director Richard Jay-Alexander, who masterfully helmed the production, continues his string of diva hits with the Midler tour. Jay-Alexander, who will be shepherding Rosie O’Donnell’s Find Me to the stage next season, also directed two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters in both her acclaimed Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall concert debuts and guided the one-and-only Barbra Streisand through her farewell concert. Here, the director has added some wonderful touches. I particularly liked his staging of one of Midler’s signature tunes, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” which followed the aforementioned “Skylark.” As she belted out the Andrews Sisters hit live, three split screens featured Midler — dressed in various outfits — performing the song on a seventies television special.
Midler also poked fun at her recent, much-in-the-news television sitcom “Bette” with a humorous video featuring the star in Judge Judy’s court. That led to a tongue-in-cheek version of “I’m Sorry” followed by a medley of the sitcom’s theme song and her crowd favorite “(Ya Gotta Have) Friends.” Highlights of the first half also included terrific takes on two Rosemary Clooney signature pieces, “Come On-A My House” and “Tenderly” (both have thankfully been preserved on Midler’s newest CD); the moving “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” from “Beaches”; a belty “When a Man Loves a Woman”; and the first-act finale, “Shiver Me Timbers.”
The evening’s second half began with a treat for Broadway fans. Returning to her familiar guise as mermaid/lounge singer Dolores DeLago, Midler offered a “Fishtails on Broadway” section featuring such theatre tunes as “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (well, actually, here it was “Everything’s Coming Up Fishtails”) as well as “Cabaret,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “All That Jazz” (“All That Shad”), “One,” “Hello, Dolly!” (“Hello, Dolores!”), “Oklahoma!” and even Dreamgirls’ “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.”
The Grammy winner remembered the late Mr. Rodgers with a poignant “I Like To Be Told” before launching into a beautiful original song — “September” — that paid tribute to the events of September 11.
“This was a hit during the last Bush war,” Midler quipped before singing a particularly touching and thought-provoking “From a Distance.” “Do You Want to Dance” preceded the show’s finale, a full-voiced, joyous “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
Midler returned for two songs from her Oscar-nominated turn in “The Rose,” “Keep On Rocking” and Amanda McBroom’s title tune. The latter brought the sold-out crowd to its feet. The 48-city Kiss My Brass tour — which also features notable choreography by Toni Basil — ends this weekend in Atlantic City.
There are rumors, however, that the elaborate production will return later in the year to more cities and possibly Radio City Music Hall. Bette fans around the world also have reason to rejoice, as there is also talk of Kiss My Brass playing Europe, Australia and Asia. And, should the tour head your way, don’t miss your chance to see Midler live. There really is no one like her on the concert circuit today. A true force of nature.