‘Miss M’ divine, and then some
Tart-tongued diva sings, zings at arena
Tuesday, November 23, 2004
By Keith Spera
Photo: Not Sure But I Like
Thirty years ago at the Fairmont Hotel’s Blue Room and similarly intimate lounges, the irrepressible Bette Midler routinely worked over her audience. The larger venues she now inhabits are not as conducive to withering, one-on-one banter.
We should be thankful.
At New Orleans Arena on Sunday, Midler chastised a woman down front for using a cell phone but otherwise left the paying customers alone. Hell on high heels, she instead aimed barbs at President Bush, talk show host Rush Limbaugh and pop star Christina Aguilera, among others.
On a glittering stage re-creating the classic Coney Island amusement park and boardwalk, Midler presided over equal parts concert, comedy routine and Broadway theater of the bizarre. In the show’s opening segment, her Harlettes, a troupe of three female dancer-singers, and 13 musicians punched up the “Kiss My Brass” of her tour’s title, concluding with a spunky “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
But her sassy commentary was at least as much fun. Of Limbaugh’s OxyContin troubles, she said, “Not only is he a moron, but he’s an Oxy-moron.” She lampooned Aguilera’s barely there stage attire, other celebrities’ doomed marriages and, in a parody of “The Brady Bunch,” pop princess Britney Spears’ new extended family.
Not sparing herself, she riffed on advancing age, even though her energized performance showed no sign of it. In an extended video skit between costume changes, Midler squared off against the CBS “eye” logo in Judge Judy’s TV courtroom, with actor Gary Coleman as a bailiff. The eye successfully sued Midler for bad-mouthing her own TV show; in fine diva fashion, Midler socked him.
She did her New Orleans homework, too. She was honored, she said, to perform “in the same arena where the Hornets lose — I mean, play.” Saints owner Tom Benson was not in attendance because “he’s going door to door collecting for the new stadium.” She saluted her “favorite business family in America”: the proprietors of the Canal Street brothel.
But she also set aside the ridiculous and/or rude for the poignant. She lofted a lovely piano and voice retelling of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark.” Via video, she engaged Mr. Rogers, the late champion of childhood and civility, in a sweet-natured duet. She revisited Rosemary Clooney’s “Hey There” and “Tenderly” beneath glamorous black-and-white photos of Clooney, demonstrating her easy way with the classic American songbook.
Midler might rethink other decisions. Her “When A Man Loves A Woman” added little to the original. “God Is Watching Us” was maudlin. Gently flapping her arms at the conclusion of “Wind Beneath My Wings” was overkill, much like Celine Dion mimicking the big-screen pose on the prow of the Titanic for “My Heart Will Go On.”
Also, the largest of three video screens mostly scrolled prerecorded segments but should have carried live close-ups of Midler’s act. Her animated expressions were not visible from most seats.
In a rare technical glitch, a flying carousel horse with Midler astride stalled 20 feet above the stage as she exited to end the first set. “Come on, Nellie!” she said, to no avail. Finally, a stage hand guided the prop, and star, down to the safety of the stage. Midler rewarded her rescuer with a bear hug.
Mostly she orchestrated a smartly paced, highly entertaining showcase. Recalling her Dolores DeLago skits of old, she and the Harlettes spent 20 minutes in mermaid costumes, cavorting in electric wheelchairs and hopping on their “tails” to Broadway standards refitted with nautical lyrics. “All That Jazz,” for example, became “All That Shad.”
Channeling the bawdy Borscht belt comedienne Sophie Tucker, she unleashed a barrage of salty jokes, some as well-trod as her character. A Chihuahua, pantyhose and rose bouquets factored in punch lines that can’t be repeated in a family newspaper.
In the finale, she coaxed a reluctant audience to sing the first verse of “The Rose,” then took over, ratcheting up the emotion and wringing all the ache from her signature song. She played out “The Rose” masterfully, so much so that a final encore was anticlimactic.
But by then, the Divine Miss M had already given plenty.