Bette Midlerâ€™s smile is a sight to behold. Even glimpsed from afar on the stage of Madison Square Garden, that radiant grin â€” shockingly intimate, concupiscent, goofy and forgiving â€” suggests: â€œYou canâ€™t fool me. Weâ€™re all human beings playing dress-up and putting on a show. So why not have fun, let our hair down and be a little naughty so long as no one gets hurt?â€
On Thursday, when she brought her latest show, â€œDivine Intervention,â€ to New York, the pied piper invitation to follow her into the playroom and be a mischievous, wise, potty-mouth child felt quite different than it did four decades ago, when she became a star. Back then, Ms. Midlerâ€™s bawdy, brassy â€œThe Divine Miss Mâ€ gleefully sabotaged showbiz decorum to resurrect a type of entertainment that the rock revolution had nearly trampled to death. Re-examined through the filter of camp, bygone acts like the Andrews Sisters and Sophie Tucker became touchstones in an all-embracing postmodern vision of popular culture in which every style has its place on a level playing field.
In December, Ms. Midler will turn 70. And throughout her concert, she joked about aging, changing times and technological innovations that were unimaginable when she started out. She looks terrific, but you could feel the effort behind the stamina she displayed as she summarized her formidable career.
Conceptually, the show was a personal balancing act between the cutup and the singer. Although the evening had its comedic sections, music, more than ever, outweighed comedy.
The funniest section involved a doctored photographs picturing her in bed, serially, with Richard M. Nixon, Vladimir V. Putin, Dick Cheney, Chris Christie and Caitlyn Jenner; the visuals were accompanied by salty remarks. One of her best-known stage alter-egos, the mermaid Delores DeLago, was memorialized in film clips.
Less successful were a series of labored Sophie Tucker-style jokes whose punch lines were not worth the wait and an elaborate, not-particularly-funny set piece in which she revived Winifred Sanderson, the bucktoothed, red-wigged witch she played in the movie â€œHocus Pocus.â€ Ms. Midler paid surprisingly scant attention to material from her smart, playful album of girl-group classics, â€œItâ€™s the Girls,â€ released last year. Those selections were overshadowed by Leonard Cohenâ€™s â€œEverybody Knowsâ€ and Randy Newmanâ€™s â€œI Think Itâ€™s Going to Rain Today,â€ ballads she infused with deep foreboding and despair. In the phrase â€œhuman kindness is overflowing,â€ used ironically in Mr. Newmanâ€™s song, she emitted the word â€œkindnessâ€ as a choked cry.
A major thread of Ms. Midlerâ€™s complicated persona is an aspiring pop-gospel singer who purposefully infuses ballads with an inspirational fervor. Her signature songs â€œThe Rose,â€ â€œWind Beneath My Wings,â€ and â€œFrom a Distance,â€ sung near the end of the show were heartfelt, full-out declamations. â€œWind Beneath My Wings,â€ in particular, rang as an anthem of gratitude to the loyal fans who have stood by her all these years.
The 1966 Lorraine Ellison hit â€œStay With Me,â€ which she belted in the movie â€œThe Rose,â€ became a platform for Ms. Midler to reflect on how the meanings of songs can change over time. What she once took as a plea for a lover not to abandon her, she said, now reflects her sorrow over the deaths of friends and loved ones whose â€œghostsâ€ surround her. The underlying message to her flock: â€œplease donâ€™t go.â€