BetteBack December 5, 1996: We Are Giddy hostage to Her Divineness

Santa Ana Orange County Register
December 5, 1996


Those expecting a sedate evening of inspirational Top 40 ballads must have been shocked to their shorts.

But devoted fans who know and love the real Bette Midler had to be wildly happy.

The diva of stage, screen, TV and radio presented an uncompromising, uncensored two-hour performance Tuesday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The two-night engagement that marked the beginning of her U.S. tour sold out in hours, and ticketless fans were at the mercy of scalpers reportedly charging up to $300 per ticket.

For the lucky concert-goers it was a night that rocked our temple of fine arts to its foundations –not unlike hearing Jerry Lewis launch into some politically incorrect one-liners in the middle of “Damn Yankees.” An evening with Midler is hilarious, heartfelt,
hectic and at times completely inappropriate, but always a hoot. That’s because Midler is so much more than a singer – she’s a full-service entertainer who, despite a hiatus from touring, craves the stage.

We’ve all seen Midler’s movies and heard her hits, but to experience her live is to marvel at the depths of her talent and outrageous persona. The production values of the show match its star, complete with eight-piece band, fancy lighting, showgirls and backup singers. It’s a big, shiny vehicle that Midler drives like Santa on a late-night sleigh hellbent for FAO Schwarz.

Midler’s mission, should you decide to accept it, is to win you over completely. Some divas such as Gloria Estefan do it with graciousness; others, like Diana Ross or Barbra Streisand, do it with mystique. But this actor singer-comedian does it with a frantic drive to give you all she’s got at once. Midler doesn’t perform for you as much as take you hostage. In the end you wind up falling for your captor’s alternately self-deprecating, self-promoting humor and her worldweary, Mae West-style sexiness.

Make no mistake, this is a freewheeling show peppered with four-letter words and ribald jokes, but with Bette Midler it’s all part of the package.

At the beginning of the show she played it straight with uptempo tunes, a little dancing and some of the funniest standup ever heard in Segerstrom Hall.

She looked around at the asymmetrical tiers and quipped, “Did the earthquake do that?” Then she proceeded to writhe on the floor in an interpretive dance inspired by the architecture.

Midler’s unpredictability – and a knockout band that could turn on a dime from disco to swing to klezmer – made the evening fly. In one set a curtain opens to reveal Bette in an evening gown lounging on a bar singing a torch song. Suddenly she swings her legs around to reveal a sequined mermaid costume.

She’s Delores, a kind of a motivational girl/fish in a wheelchair, who leads us through an absurd infomercial.

There were more surprises. A burlesque set, complete with showgirls and backup singers wearing pasties, harkened to Midler’s days playing New York’s Continental Baths and her starring role as Mama Rose in a TV adaptation of “Gypsy.”

Along with the curveballs came the golden oldies. Those who wanted to hear Midler’s hits could not have been disappointed. She sprinkled them throughout the show, drawing on a range of favorites from her first album, “The Divine Miss M,” and her 1979 movie, “The Rose,” and including “You Don’t Own Me,” the doo-wop song from her latest film, “The First Wives Club.”

But Midler saved her biggest show-stoppers for a final set, appearing in black evening gown and gold heels to sing “Do You Want to Dance?” “From a Distance” and a twitchy, hard-rocking “Stay With Me Baby.”

Finally, in her encore, Midler turned down the volume for a quiet “thank you” to the audience with “Wind Beneath My Wings” from Beaches.” “I never meant this song more than I mean it now,” she cooed to her audience. They lapped up every word.

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