October 15, 1973
WELL, CAN ANYONE not know who Bette Midler is by now? “We come to Chi every two weeks, it seems like,” the Miss M [some preface that with “The Divine”] slightly overestimated the situation Friday night at the first of three weekend concerts at the Auditorium. It also seems like her cult couldn’t get enough of her if she were here every week. Even the most mundane of her material, the trash with the least flash, is greeted with what sounds like a perpetual laugh track, and every grimace wreaks instant glee.
“You can always tell who’s new to the audience,” she says. “The new people just freak out.” Well, sweetie, that’s the whole idea. Bette Midler is to trash and hubby-hubby what Rod McKuen is to poetry: its best-selling exponent, for better or worse, and like McKuen, there’s little middle ground. You either love her or could care less. Whatever you think, she does turn out that trash-fast and frenetically. In fact, most of the time she resembles a Mixmaster with the controls jammed on “heat.”
Not that Midler isn’t in control. She knows exactly what her audience wants, and dishes it up to orchestral accompaniment. Fifties rock ‘n’ roll medleys, nasty comments about dear, sweet little Karen Carpenter, chaste little Miss Trish Nixon, safe and sane Ms. Helen [“I Am a Woman”] Reddy. Midler’s a woman, too, of course, but of a different sort. Her forte is ’40s songs, ’40s sleaze, the sort of stuff considered too, too camp. She’s a singer, sure, but its her personality that puts all this across, and Bette works her platforms off at being the personality kid. Calculated tastelessness [every other line echoed with a nasal “Did I say that?”], gay little asides and in jokes – in other words, camp in overdrive. My only complaint with that is after awhile it all begins to wear a little thin.
INTRINSIC to Midler’s appeal is that she keeps topping herself in trash. Last time she was here, the big number was Bette bandying herself about in sequined corset, a stray breast flopping out. Friday night at the Auditorium, it was a “Lullaby of Broadway” type affair, with Miller and her three bistro-bawdy backup Harlettes carrying on in front of a huge backdrop of the street in question, ’40s-filled with gypsy tea rooms, snooker parlors, and the Roxy.
After a pleasant enough segment of songs by her musical director, Barry Manilow, Bette emerged is pink sequins, dripping with feather boas and suitably pathetic-looking fur pieces, while the Harlettes returned in pink maid uniforms. Eventually, the uniforms were whipped open to reveal glittering American flag-motif getups on the reverse – a neat bit of costuming. Later these got shucked along with Bette’s sequins, leaving everyone concerned in sleaze-style slips.
On each chest, a different card suit nestled in glittering glamour – club, diamond, spade, and hears. Bette, of course, got the heart, and there’s no doubt she’s the sweetheart of this sort of showpersonship. If she can keep it up, she may be able to keep this game going indefinitely. As for me, I’ll just kibitz.