It was probably too dangerous to shoot her from a cannon, drop her from the wayward space probe, or team her up with an arena’s worth of tap-dancing bovines. But it’s been 10 long years since Bette Midler has strutted her considerable stuff in concert, so an entrance, dahling, was inevitable. It was no surprise when the dipsy diva ascended from the heavens swathed in accordioned silver lame and whirling in a flimsy throne. Only Miz M could pop in from the cosmos, right into the waiting doo-wops of a bewitching trio of backup singers who somehow managed to be both underdressed and overdressed at the same time. The converted, the curious and the merely fanatic watched in awe as the svelte semi-goddess, purple pantsuited and silver pumped like a housewife on holiday, trilled in tribute to herself and worshipped gleefully at her own sequinned altar. “Bet you didn’t expect me to look quite this fab,” she cooed, flashing insanely white teeth and hefting her hooters for emphasis. She kicked off the proceedings with her ode to her, “I Look Good,” which indeed she did, flinging good-girl blonde ringlets and prancing the stage with sexy staccato steps like Betty Boop in a backbrace. At 47, Midler is a whirlwind, dazzling and divine, a giddy reminder of what we were before we became what we are.
It was an evening of dizzying possibilities and even dizzier realities. A whizzing bevy of mermaids in electric wheelchairs boogied in synchronized swing in a production number that would have made the June Taylor Dancers hang their heads in shame. Fins aflurry, the flirty fishwomen wheeled through a delightfully soggy medley that included “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “In the Navy,” “Anchors Aweigh” and, inexplicably, “The Greatest Love of All.” Imagine Midler, deep into her patented Delores de Lago persona, wiggling her blue satin flipper and conjuring enough nerve to sing the lyric “You can’t take away my dig-ni-teeeeee . . .” How’s that for dizzy reality? Or how about a burlesque send-up with Midler trying to disguise the (almost) bare-chested dancers by painting smiley faces on their torsos?
Suffice it to say that the woman was in overdrive. She couldn’t get enough of herself, and that was just peachy because the audience couldn’t seem to get enough of her, either. In between the belting of ballads and the slinky manueverings of her wildly talented backup (“the politically correct Harlettes, completely sanitized for your protection”), Midler was Henny Youngman on boosters, spouting one-liners that elicited strange, animal-like whines from the audience, somewhere between a groan and a giggle. Midler poked fun at the privileged American Express Gold Card holders in the front row, pointed out a small gaggle of “leather queens” on the right side of the arena, and bemoaned the fact that Jews were seated so far away from the stage. “What’s the matta?,” she smacked. “Got no contacts?”
Relentlessly, she personalizied her schtick a bit: “I’m so glad you all took time out from your red-hot mayoral race to come see me. Which Italian will you be voting for?”
And she sang. Midler is a belter from the old school, locking onto a song and bringing it up from her toes — and when she hits, something is bound to rattle. The minor ’70s sleeper “Delta Dawn” was revived with an injection of rousing backroads gospel, and the usually staid “Miss Otis Regrets” was sparked with a hip-hop backbeat. Midler, hardly mellowed in 10 years’ time, wailed with an elegance and abandonment that enhanced her already undeniable signature. “Rose’s Turn,” the finale of the musical “Gypsy” — which Midler just filmed for television — was the singer at pinnacle, gutteral and lustrous and daring.
“Have I sung the ballad yet?,” was a question the singer asked during the evening, admitted that her mind was “on CD shuffle” and she really couldn’t remember. It was the ballads that slowed the pace of the show and made the boisterous Midler sound tentative and a bit tired. Also, oft-sung offerings such as “From a Distance” and “Stay With Me” (during which Midler chewed scenery like a dino from Jurassic Park) were mere fillers. It was Midler at play that was Midler at her best, and — being that we’re all so serious nowadays — that’s the way it should be.