BootLeg Betty

BetteBack April 24, 1975: It’s a glossier Bette Midler who’s back in the Big Apple (‘Clams’)

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Middletown Times Herald
April 24, 1975


NEW YORKBette Midler, the tackiest girl in town, has come home to roost at the tackiest theater on Broadway, the Minskoff. She opened last week with her “Clams on the Half Shell Revue,” and proved that it’s oysters that produce pearls, not clams.

The show begins with the overture from “Oklahoma!” — which is not a bad way to open a show. At least it once worked quite well for “Oklahoma!? It then moves straight into a scene from “Showboat.”

This concept once worked quite well for “Showboat.” But Miss Midler is only nostalgically kidding us — and soon she herself hauled onto stage in a clam shell — she waggles her posterior, follows this with a little aloha-posing and a South Seas ditty. All this seems to work quite well for Miss Midler.

It is more than a year since “The Divine Miss M.” as she shamelessly calls herself to the delight of her vociferous fans, has last in town at the Palace Theater.

That time has far simpler than the present so-called revue, in which Miss Midler, caught in the middle of an over-blown, overstaged and over-dressed cabaret act does her game and often successful best to fight her way out.

She is a modern phenomenon, the low priestess of her own jukebox subculture, an explosion of energy and minutely calculated bad taste, a drizzle of dazzle, a lady both bnsh and vulnerable, a grinning waif singing with a strident plaintiveness of friendship
and love.

Miss Midler is a past-mistress of faded, peeling instant nostalgia, some of it exotic, most of it oldfashioned, and a little of it freezedried as well as instant.

Her forte is the 40s. and she encourages her audience to remember and identify with a shock and a giggle, in a grin-alongwith-Bette spirit. She is a fine nudge-artist of the recognition joke, and her singing from rock to ballad, from be-bop to gospel, is individual, fascinating and usually self-explosive in its mockery.

She uses the theater as if it were a nightclub, and plays with the audience as if it were a shoal of fish. Her rapport is extraordinary, and she can laugh and insult, arid laugh again. But what has happened to Miss Midler in this show? Oh. of course, enough of her comes through to keep the fans roaring, but something has happened. The vulgarity has become glossy rather than tatty.

Tony Walton‘s designs are heroic in their creative imagination, particularly in a show where imagination is largely lacking, or if not lacking hearing a somewhat mechanical grin.

Whether he is designing a ghost bar (full of male dummies and a manic Miss Midler), an Empire State Building in the hairy grasp of King Kong, holding Miss Midler in the palm of his paw, or creating — in the second half – a vast juke-box setting for Lionel Hampton and a joyously noise-sounding big band – Walton is on top of the world. The show is more fun to look at than Miss Midler’s material is to listen to.

The second half of the show is, indeed, warmer and less pretentious than the first. For one thing we have a cream-suited Lionel Hampton presiding avuncularly over his vibraphone, dashing off as only he can those rhythmic but plangent runs, tinkles and riffs of an instrument he practically invented and has virtually patented from the early days of Benny Goodman on.

And Hampton dances, plays the piano, plays the drums, and indeed when caught in a strobe-light drumming away, performing juggling tricks with sticks, he is like a living photograph by Ojon Mili. and all is right with the world, and with the show.

Miss Midler and her trio of harpies, the Harlettes, are often cheerfully amusing, and the director Joe Layton has done a few very good things for them choreographically and visually not least in the finale when they are briefly joined by a driving group of
gospel singers, the Michael Powell Ensemble.

However someone should tell Miss Midler when she is being too sentimental and self-indulgent — she is best when she is etched a little in acid. For all this although she could have had better material (enough people seem to have written it) and she could have been more persuasively presented, more sensitive use could have been made of her naughty but, yes, divine sense of humor.

For all this, when everything is said and done, by heck, New York is still her town and she is still its best Bette. Even if this time around, the odds, like the show itself, are little long.

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