After admiring an artist for decades, there is always the prospect of disappointment when one finally gets the opportunity to see them in action. Thank you then to The Divine Miss M for not just living up to expectations, but exceeding them. Proof, perhaps, that the best things come in small packages.
In an unorthodox move, the five stars above are for Midlerâ€™s inspiring performance and the first class work from her accompanying backing singers and musicians led by MD Morris â€˜Moâ€™ Pleasure (some of the gags and lyrics specially written to amuse the London audience do not deserve the same kind of perfect score).
Unlike the recent Idina Menzel concert tour seen in the UK, this showâ€™s visual design doesnâ€™t just take account of those sitting in the first few rows, but strives to involve everyone lucky enough to have a ticket in the vast O2 arena.
From the very start, when the hurricane that is Midlerâ€™s Divine Intervention storms into the venue, the projection and lighting designers ensure the show is a colourful and atmospheric feast for the eyes (credit to scenic designer Michael Cotten, video and projection designer Olivier Goulet and lighting designer Peter Morse).
So often the terms â€˜legendâ€™ and â€˜iconâ€™ are bandied about, but it is hard to avoid them when this unique actress, singer and comedienne is in action.
â€œThe peopleâ€™s goddess is in the house,â€ Midler exclaims, before asking what she describe as the most important question of all: â€œDonâ€™t I look fabulous?â€ (And whether wearing a pink mini-dress or stunning red sequined number, she does indeed â€“ the legs are still to die for).
â€œIâ€™m like vodka,â€ she remarks, â€œageless, odourless and tastelessâ€¦â€ I suppose the kind of gags, told by Midlerâ€™s popular character Soph (inspired by Sophie Tucker) during the Canary Club skit, might fall into the latter category, but they are also laugh-out-loud funny. This is when Midlerâ€™s great comic timing is at the fore. [Fans will also be sad to bid farewell to infamous mermaid Delores DeLago who appears to have retired from showbusiness].
Elsewhere, despite Midlerâ€™s prowess as a comedienne, the efforts to connect with the London crowd fall a little flat. These include images of the performer in flagrante with everyone from Jeremy Clarkson to Margaret Thatcher; a special version of â€˜I Put a Spell On Youâ€™ delivered in full costume as Winifred Sanderson from the 1993 comedy fantasy movie Hocus Pocus; and an odd Benny Hill reference thanks to a tap dancing egg. The showâ€™s writers may have thought these set-ups would work but they seem pretty contrived.
But such quibbles pale into insignificance when it comes to the quality of Midlerâ€™s vocals and storytelling through song. In upbeat numbers like â€˜Iâ€™ve Still Got My Healthâ€™ (a personal favourite of mine) and a selection of tracks from her recent album Itâ€™s the Girls (the harmonising on â€˜Bei Mir Bist Du Schonâ€™ is a rare treat), there is no let-up in the energy with which this true professional approaches her craft.
Indeed, here, the slick direction and choreography has to be praised highly (co-director and choreographer is Toni Basil), with all those onstage (including the excellent trio of female backing singers, The Staggering Harlettes â€“ Kyra DaCosta, Nicolette Hart, Carol Hatchett) so confident with the material that they can relax, entertain and have the best of times.
Best of all though within a well-balanced programme are the ballads everyone is waiting for: â€˜The Roseâ€™, â€˜From a Distanceâ€™, â€˜Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Mostâ€™, an intensely emotional â€˜Stay With Meâ€™, and a truly touching â€˜Wind Beneath My Wingsâ€™, dedicated to everyone in the audience. The feelings these melodies evoke are the ones that stay with you well beyond the journey home.
To connect with an audience in this barn of a venue, and make them laugh and cry in equal measure is quite an accomplishment. At nearly 70 years of age, Midler jokes about her age and that of her fans, but she remains a unique presence in the showbiz world. Sexy, sassy, sincere and always Divine.
NB: Musical theatre fans will be interested that two original songs in the show â€“ â€˜Divine Interventionâ€™ and â€˜A Bird in the Handâ€™ â€“ have been written by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman (Hairspray, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and Bette Midler. Wittman is also the productionâ€™s creative consultant.