BootLeg Betty

BetteBack January 23, 1997: Tom Shales – Diva Las Vegas

Washington Post
January 23, 1997

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WASHINGTON — A dazzling tour de force of monumental proportions!

And that was just the first 15 minutes! “Bette Midler: Diva Las Vegas,” Midler’s latest TV special, proved indisputably that there’s plenty of life in the old girl yet. We should all have as much.

The lavishly ballyhooed concert, which premiered on HBO last Saturday night, earned all the ballyhoo and certainly stinted nary a whit on lavishness. Midler was in great voice, great face and great form. The balance of new material and old standbys seemed ideal, as did the ratio of music to comedy.

It was 2 hours and 10 minutes of utter hysterical pleasure.

And the good news for HBO subscribers is that HBO will repeat the concert on Sunday, Feb. 2, at 9 p.m. (Central time).

“I bet you didn’t expect me to look quite this fabulous,” the svelte Midler told her audience at the MGM Grand. “I bet you were expecting a beefier gal.” She put herself through exhausting paces throughout the night, bouncing and flouncing, preening and careening, even lying down onstage at one point to do sit-ups and push-ups.

All this was designed to prove she’s still alive and kickin’. Nobody belabors the obvious with quite so much charm as Midler. It’s a belabor of love.

Midler revived some of her old reliables, but none that have worn out. their welcomes: Delores DelLago, the mermaid in the motorized wheelchair, who eventually led a mad chorus line of flapping fins to “New York, New York“; her original theme song “Friends,” sung at the vety opening as Midler descended from the rafters on a cloud; and rock oldies such as “Do You Wanna Dance?,” all accompanied by three ultra-comely backup singers she calls the Harlettes.

The choice of music was nothing if not eclectic — everything from the inevitable superhit “Wind Beneath My Wings” to the quaintly campy “Ukulele Lady” to a jubilant reprise of what Midler mockingly called “our national anthem,” the rollicking Andrews Sisters
number “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”

Midler’s quips were up to the minute. She said her Cabbage Patch doll “coughed up a hairball.” She recalled dreaming that “Laura Ashley murdered Martha Stewart,” but not to worry, “it was a lovely presentation.” Her husband is so designer-conscious, Midler said, that “he couldn’t believe O.J. only had one pair of Bruno Magli shoes.”

Celebrating the box office success of her most recent film, “The First Wives Club,” Midler sang a parody of “Ev’rything’s Coming Up Roses” from “Gypsy,” her big TV special of a few seasons back.

Only this time it went: “Things look swell, things look great, I got 20 percent of the gate,” and the song was retitled “Ev’rything’s Coming Up Grosses.”

Perhaps 23 minutes was a bit too much time’for Midler’s tribute to burlesque, replete with bawdy Sophie Tucker jokes, but it did include gorgeous showgirls in varying degrees of toplessness. Midler can share the stage with the built and the beautiful and still know that few eyes will drift from her for very long.

Producer-director Marty Callner did everybody a favor by concentrating his cameras on the stage and the star and not, as so many directors of live concerts do, on people in the audience. Who wants to see people in the audience? The production was staged by, and
dedicated to, the late Joe Layton, a Broadway veteran.
• . • •
It was hard to watch Midler whizzing and whirring around and not compare her show with Barbra Streisand’s 1994 concert tour, which also became an HBO special.

Midler was 10 times more entertaining and 20 times less pretentious. At its best moments, her voice has a warmth that is lovely and enveloping. She’s a wonder at achieving what might be called Bombastic Intimacy.

Like the heroine of an old Saturday afternoon serial, Bette Midler has had her ups and she’s had her downs. This was an up. Maybe an up and a half. Ev’rything was coming up “up.”
• • •
Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales writes for the Washington Post.

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