BetteBack: The High Priestess Of Pop Culture

New York Times
September 16, 1993
Review/Pop; Midler, Closer to the Mainstream But Still Creating Quite a Splash

Wisecracking, jiggling her flesh and whooping it up in a voice that has never sounded stronger, Bette Midler retook New York on Tuesday evening.

The entertainer made her entrance at Radio City Music Hall, where she is to perform 30 shows through Oct. 23, floating over the stage inside a cardboard cloud. Its fleeces quickly parted to reveal a sun whose golden rays were dimmed by the glare of the star’s ferociously mischievous grin.

“You were expecting a beefier person,” teased the 47-year-old entertainer, who was in svelte fighting shape. She plunged immediately into an amusing theatrical rap song, in which she declared she had been “Walt Disneyized” and “Jurassicized,” then delivered a scathingly funny monologue that concentrated on tabloid horror stories set in Long Island. Special attention was devoted to pondering the mysterious charms of Joey Buttafuoco.

Those who feared that Ms. Midler might have been been “Disneyized” into giving a G-rated performance can breathe easily. Her show, “Experience the Divine,” has the usual Midler quota of raunchy humor. At the same time, it is no more extreme than what Ms. Midler has been doing for the last two decades. It offers the same high-powered mixture of stand-up comedy, burlesque show humor, campy production numbers and cabaret singing as earlier Midler extravaganzas like “Divine Madness” and “Clams on the Half Shell.”

Weaving these disparate elements together with a brash good humor and plenty of heart is a performer who defines the contemporary red-hot mama: Sophie Tucker, Ethel Merman and Judy Garland rolled into one furiously energetic package.

“Experience the Divine” has a familiarity that is almost reassuring. Not only is her trio the Harlettes (now jokingly introduced as “the politically correct Harlettes”) back, but so are Ms. Midler’s stage alter egos. The most amusing is the lounge singer Delores Del Lago who slithers around in mermaid fins and sings hilariously inappropriate renditions of pop tunes you never wanted to hear again.

At the high point of Delores’s act, she and a chorus of seven mermaids in motorized wheelchairs do a ridiculous choreographed twirling routine with white billiard balls attached to ropes. The ensemble’s pumped-up disco version of “Greatest Love of All,” which builds to an exclamatory “Me, me, me!,” thoroughly trashes the song, which has replaced “I Will Survive” as the object of Delores’s triumphant demolition.

Equally high-spirited is a tribute to burlesque in which Ms. Midler body-paints the torsos of female dancers with faces (the pasties become eyes) and crowns them with giant top hats that slip below the neck. No Midler show would be complete without a round of dirty jokes in the Tucker tradition, and “Experience the Divine” has several. The funniest involves mistaking a slangy sexual come-on for the name of a Japanese car.

The two-act show, which emphasizes campy frolic in its first half, becomes more musically oriented in Act II. The happiest surprise of “Experience the Divine” is the superb condition of Ms. Midler’s voice. Plagued in the past with pitch problems and a tendency to scream when trying to belt, Ms. Midler has finally built a voice that is full, secure, brassy and soulful.

A gospel fervor that Ms. Midler has tried for years to express, without always being able to summon the voice for it, came through resoundingly on Tuesday in her renditions of “Delta Dawn” and “Stay With Me.” “From a Distance” had a warmth and stately balance that eclipsed her recent hit recording. “The Rose” and “Do You Wanna Dance?” were sweet and sultry.

The show’s most luminous moment was her performance of John Prine’s “Hello, in There.” The chatty but sad-hearted monologue of a retired Middle American factory worker facing a lonely old age brought out a tenderness in Ms. Midler that is the flip side of her campy insouciance.

The adoration expressed by the celebrity-filled opening-night audience was one indication of how the times have caught up with Ms. Midler. What was marginal, gay bathhouse entertainment in the early 1970’s is now thoroughly mainstream. The New York theater, in particular, abounds with campy revues and musicals that owe a major debt to Ms. Midler’s free-for-all stage shows.

Proclaiming the value of uninhibited self-expression and the freedom to raid the most esoteric corners of pop culture history for whatever is valuable, the genre embodies the urban cultural tone of a liberated era. Ms. Midler reigns as its radiant high priestess.

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