ONE MORE ROUND:
THE LATEST, GREATEST BETTE,
DIVA LAS VEGAS
Concert review by Todd Sussman. This review appeared in The Bette Midler Scrapbook, by Allison Waldman (1997).
Introduction by Allison Waldman, author of The Bette Midler Scrapbook:
On January 10, 1997, fifty-two-year old Bette Midler returned to the stage once again. The occasion was the filming of her updated Experience the Divine show, renamed Diva Las Vegas. The show that played the MGM Grand Garden was a spectacle, a monumental concert by a monumental concert artist. Entertainment journalist and longtime Bette Midler fan Todd Sussman was fortunate enough to see Diva Las Vegas live. His in-depth review of the show offers insights into the magic of Midler live and at her very best. As you will read, he thought she was simply divine.
Review by Todd Sussman:
The Divine Miss M. Mega movie star. Showstopping singer. Oscar-worthy actress. All Girl and even more woman. Waitress at the banquet of life. Queen of Compost. The Bette-meister. Bette-o-rama. One of the first ”“ and last ”“ true superstars. Bette Midler fits all of these descriptions”¦and in her Las Vegas concert, they all come into play. One moment, she’s mesmerizing an audience with the way she sells a song. The next, she’s causing a laugh riot. If there’s one thing this show woman knows, it’s how to put on a great show.
Here we have Diva Las Vegas, live at the MGM Grand. The arena has, indeed, been very good in delivering top talent to its patrons. The last time I was there was to see that other superstar whose name also starts with a B”¦Barbra Streisand. But that’s a whole ”˜nother story. This night was all about Bette.
Miss Midler really lived up to her Divine billing, even before she descended from her cut-out clouds and landed onto center stage. On the day of the show, Friday, January 10, the MGM Grand Hotel was decked out in Midler imagery. Posters for the event were prominently displayed. They featured a stunning photograph of Bette in a gold sequined gown, sprawled out on a bed of red poker chips. What a wonderful way to say “Vegas,” or as Midler puts it, “Oy Vegas!” The image was omnipresent: bigger than life on the gargantuan MGM marquee, showcased in the labyrinth of casino rooms, and even bolted into the hotel’s elevators. Alas, the poster was something of a teaser; it was for promotional use only, not for sale to the diehard fans who just had to have one. Luckily, Bette herself was more accessible in a sense, giving her audience exactly what it came to see: the flash and the trash, the glitter and the glitz, the mermaids and the music. So on with the show.
Midler’s concert was tailor-made for her ”“ and us. After a snippet of her very first theme song, “Friends,” she segued into a rap song appropriately titled, “I Look Good.” This was pure poetry in motion, literally. In form-fitting black stagewear, complemented by high-heel pumps with wrap-around ankle straps, the newly svelte Bette walked the walk (you know, the famous one we’ve come to know and love in movies like Down and Out In Beverly Hills and Outrageous Fortune) and talked the talk. Hearing Bette proclaim “I Look Good” made me recall Barbra Streisand proclaiming “I’m Still Here,” the specialty song Barbra used in her Vegas concert to cover the trials and tribulations of a legend who defied her detractors and remained on top. Now it was Bette’s turn to review history. And just look at what Midler had to go through to look so good ”“ albeit, to survive ”“ as the lyrics indicate: “Boys and girls, I have done it all / I’ve been compromised, Walt Disney-ized / Dried out, detoxed and Jurrasified / Macroed, microed, lipoed / And psychoanalyzed.”
No wonder this diva has our respect! She has earned her stripes. And more importantly, that night, she was willing to earn them all over again. She was energized for this rapper’s delight, giving her backup singers, the Harlettes, a run for their money.
As a nice touch, she turned the tables to acknowledge her viewers, a diverse crowd peppered with high rollers in their finest velvet garb, some former movie co-stars (James Caan, Lainie Kazan), Nevada locals, out-of-towners, and the loyal fans in the front row. Midler hilariously referred to those up front as “the American Express Gold Card ticket holders”¦yuppie swine!”
Act One provided a musical journey through many Midlerian song styles. She did the trademark sultry standard (every diva used to do at least one per LP, some built entire LPs out of them). In this case, it was “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.” The lush arrangement, combined with Bette’s shimmering vocals, gave new life to this chestnut. The song also gave her the chance to show off her incredible range, hitting the highs as well as the lows. She was, all at once, breathtaking and heartbreaking, and this wasn’t even one of those “inspirational ballads,” a term Midler used to refer to her smash-hit theme songs ”“ “The Rose,” “From a Distance,” and “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” With “Spring,” Midler showed that she doesn’t need all the pomp and circumstance in order to really shine.
Of course, all the musical frills were still offered. We got the retro big-band singer harmonies of “Miss Otis Regrets.” Another crowd pleaser. We got the now-obligatory (to Midler tours) disco medley. Included here was her reading of “Rock the Boat,” which, though very brief, still qualifies as time capsule-quality camp. We got the Broadway-to-TV belters, as in “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy. (How dare they not give her the Emmy for that!) And we got a mini-burlesque show with a song from the vaults, “Pretty Legs and Great Big Knockers,” excavated from De Tour, her 1983 road show. “Pretty Legs” was interwoven with a slew of Soph jokes. This was fitting for a performer known for transcending the boundaries of good taste, long before Madonna removed her training bra, or any of her bras, for that matter.
The most magical moments from the first half of her concert, however, came when Midler brought us back to the movies”¦her movies”¦namely, The First Wives Club and The Rose. To start, Midler paid ample tribute to First Wives, with parody lyrics to “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (changing “Roses” to “Grosses”), at which point Midler basked in the film’s through-the-roof box office ticket sales (“I’m in a hit, a big f***ing hit, baby!), as well as a soaring solo version of “You Don’t Own Me,” which Midler had originally performed in the movie with her costars, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton. “The Rose,” of course, became the evening’s first inspirational ballad, and after all these years (eighteen, to be precise), her interpretation is still new and exciting. Many audience members returned the love that was channeled through this number by holding up red, silk, glow-in-the-dark roses and swaying them to the music. It was a one-time-only moment, containing all the spontaneity and electricity which characterize the experience of seeing a show live. Not even the HBO cameras could capture that moment, which invisibly linked every member of the audience.
In Act Two, Midler lugged out some perennial favorites: Delores DeLago on wheels, balls on a string, early hit singles such as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Do You Want to Dance?,” and, to close the show, her most recent chart-toppers, which have become her latest theme songs. The Delores section was rooted in America’s fleeting preoccupation with informercials, New Age self-help gurus, and twelve-step programs. Admittedly, this material, which was culled from Bette’s Experience the Divine tour from 1993, seemed somewhat dated. And yet, Midler managed to get mucho mileage out of it. She was absolutely radiant. Undeniably, the audience still cherished the sight of Midler as a mermaid in a wheelchair doing her New Age shtick, and they rewarded her with a standing ovation.
Nevertheless, Bette definitely saved the best for last. This was the concert within the concert, the singer standing in front of the microphone in a sexy, low-cut sequined auburn dress, simply and elegantly singing her signature songs, including “From a Distance” and “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” along with a jazzed-up version of “To Comfort You” from her most recent CD, Bette of Roses. More than once, these songs brought the audience to its feet, especially her rendition of “Stay With Me” from The Rose. With that song, every emotion registering on Midler’s face rang true, and her voice met the challenge of the musical peaks and valleys, the almost primal screams incorporated into this tale of abandonment and rejection, the ultimate victim song. She truly has to work this song whenever she sings it”¦and work it she did. This is why she gets the big bucks, and why she deserves them. This is why her devotees will pay to see her concerts more than once, flying halfway around the globe if they have to. On stage, Bette Midler remains one of the most compelling performers of her generation, and on that Friday night in Las Vegas, she surpassed my greatest expectations.
A Bootleg Betty Exclusive
An Update by Todd Sussman
I haven’t read my Diva Las Vegas review since I wrote it almost two decades ago”¦until now. Bette is still going strong, ready to play Dolly Levi on Broadway, with her fans still raving about her most recent tour, Divine Intervention, which, as fate would have it, began in my hometown, Hollywood, Florida.
Divine Intervention has all the magic of her past shows — even more if that’s possible — but some of the accoutrements have changed. The audience’s glowing silk roses that lit up arenas during “The Rose” in 1997 were replaced by the glowing lights of swaying cell phones in 2015. Bette’s topical commentary on infomercials and twelve-step programs was replaced by talk of social media and sexual selfies. Delores DeLago is no longer with us; she has gone to a higher place. But Bette just keeps getting better. She’s still got it!