At the midpoint of Bette Milder‘s two-hour, immensely entertaining Divine Intervention show at New Orleans’ Smoothie King Center on Saturday (May 16), she disappeared for a costume change. The time was filled by a slow-motion, Oscars-style memorial video montage of Delores Delago, Midler’s brassy mermaid alter-ego. Dolores, it seems, is dead.
It was probably time for her to go. Delores’ Broadway parodies, a staple of Midler concerts for years, were labor-intensive. During a 2004 tour, Delores and her flapping fishtail were confined to a wheelchair. Clearly age was catching up with her, if not Midler.
By retiring the zany Delores, the 69-year-old Midler may be acknowledging that, on paper at least, she’s getting older. If so, that was the only such acknowledgement.
Was she occasionally breathless after an extended bout of singing and dancing across a broad stage, in heels? Understandably, yes. Did she, here and there, trip herself up and take a moment to hit upon the right word in a rushed bout of banter? Sure. Were some passages sung in a lower register than back in the day? Absolutely.
But did she carry the full weight of a meticulously assembled, multi-platform presentation, showcasing her still formidable, broad-spectrum talents with her usual medley of class and sass? Absolutely.
At the show’s outset, she was revealed sitting amidst the wreckage left by a purple twister, calming reading a copy of The Times-Picayune. Impeccable in a short sparkling pink dress / nightie, she and her three Harlettes stepped out smartly. Behind them, a crisp band featuring a pair of electric guitarists and five horn players, all in purple suits with red shirts, punched up and finessed songs.
Following an invigorated opening, she caught her breath with Rosemary Clooney’s lounge-y “Tenderly.” With the Harlettes in pink fringe, they hustled through a set drawn from her 2014 album of girl-group songs, “It’s the Girls!”: “Tell Him,” ” He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” “Da Do Ron Ron.” She gave shout-outs to the Dixie Cups, whose “Chapel of Love” she covered on her first album, and the Boswell Sisters, the pioneering 1930s New Orleans vocal trio whose “It’s the Girl” gave her current album its title.
When I asked Midler during a pre-tour interview if she would sing “It’s the Girl” in New Orleans, she lamented that she likely wouldn’t have time to rehearse the difficult arrangement. But she did acknowledge the omission onstage by jokingly asking her musical director for the Boswell chart, only to be told the band didn’t have it. “I’m so humiliated,” she said in mock exasperation. “A pick-up band â€“ what do you expect?”
She was here, she proclaimed, to “lift your spirits, like a boob job for your soul.” She compared herself to vodka: “Ageless, odorless and tasteless.”
She wasn’t kidding. During an extended Vegas-style showpiece built around “Two in the Bush” â€“ set up, bizarrely, by a tap-dancing egg — Midler wore red and black plumes while the Harlettes pranced in yellow feathers. They sashayed back and forth as Midler, as Sophie Tucker, reeled off off-color jokes about her fictional beau Ernie as if auditioning for the Friars’ Club. A mild example: “Soph, how many men have you slept with?” “Only you â€“ the others, I stayed awake.” Ask someone who was there about why Soph wanted to fire the chauffeur. Or about her Chihuahua. Or sitting on the cat.
She noted that the Kardashian empire was essentially built on Kim’s long-ago sex tape, and lamented her own short-sightedness in not videotaping herself: “I could have been a billionaire at 30.” Screens then displayed faux-iPhone pictures of Midler with in bed with the likes of Dick Cheney (“I was responsible for heart attacks three and six”), New Jersey governor Chris Christie (“the last time we were supposed to hook up, the bridge was closed”), and, perhaps inevitably, Bruce Jenner: “We watched ‘Beaches’ and painted each others’ toenails.”
Old-school entertainment values aside â€“ She sings! She dances! She tells off-color jokes! She’s all real! — she is not stuck in the past. She is fluent in social media trends, even if not necessarily a fan: “Remember when people were afraid if they were being followed?” She stumbled while stepping off a keyboard riser, then expressed relief at not falling. “I could see myself in a gif,” she said, referring to the online video snippets that endlessly repeated tumbles by “Lady Gaga and Lady Madonna.”
She ribbed her aging audience, pointing out the “50 shades of gray” in the seats and expressing surprise that so many of her fans can still drive at night. (Not all of them, apparently â€“ curtains hid the arena’s unsold upper seats.)
Most of her jokes and banter are the same at every show, but she customizes comments for her host cities. “You still have clubs, you still have neighborhoods,” she gushed of New Orleans. “You don’t know what it’s like out there (in the rest of America). It’s a wasteland.” She noted that twerking originated in New Orleans. “It’s all your fault.”
She even pitched herself as the perfect Carnival participant. “I should be grand marshal of one of those g—- Mardi Gras parades. Call me up.” (Hello, Orpheus? Endymion? Bacchus?)
A night after TLC performed “Waterfalls” in the Smoothie King Center as the New Kids on the Block’s opening act, Midler delivered her own spare, downtrodden arrangement, which laid bare the ache at the heart of the lyrics. Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” was also suitably dour. Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” was an especially good fit.
In a theatrical turn, she emerged in full costume, complete with red wig and faux teeth, as Winifred, her witch character from 1993’s “Hocus Pocus,” to reprise “I Put a Spell On You.” Following the Delores farewell, Midler returned in a fabulous red sequined dress with the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden.” She introduced Nanci Griffith’s “From a Distance,” with its refrain of “God is watching us,” as an anti-war song. Lorraine Ellison’s 1966 soul hit “Stay With Me,” which Midler memorably covered in the film “The Rose,” gave her far more to dig into. She tore it up.
She made frequent use of tissues to dab her eyes, which didn’t seem like showbiz dramatics. She last performed in New Orleans in the fall of 2004, so this was her first opportunity to acknowledge the city’s Hurricane Katrina recovery with “Wind Beneath My Wings.” More tissues followed.
“The Rose” remains her show-stopping moment. “Everybody loves to sing along,” she cautioned. “Please don’t. There’s only room for one diva.” She is still that diva. A singer, in sequins, alone in the spotlight, she nailed a radiant “Rose.” No fishtails were necessary.