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POP MUSIC REVIEW : A Delightfully Daring Miss M : Bette Midler’s ‘Experience the Divine’ is a triumph of fresh music, sophisticated skits and timely jokes.

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Yes, Miss M is still divine.

Returning to concerts after a 10-year break, the preeminent mainstream pop performer of the ‘70s and early ‘80s could have wowed us simply with a recycled greatest-hits package.

And Bette Midler did employ many of her old standbys on Wednesday at the Universal Amphitheatre, including familiar record hits, ribald Sophie Tucker-style jokes and tacky Delores DeLago’s lounge act spectacle.

What made the evening so triumphant, however, was Midler’s undiminished daring and vision.

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It’s not an erosion of vocal or delivery skills that causes so many singers and comedians to lose their effectiveness as the decades roll by. It’s the loss of their instincts for what matters, what subjects are either right in step with the audience or--better yet--a step ahead.

Midler’s every move in the new “Experience the Divine” tour, which continues its sold-out Amphitheatre engagement through Thursday (with Monday off), is right in sync with the ‘90s. The music is fresh, the skits sophisticated and the wonderfully merciless jokes as timely as a CNN newscast.

The targets ranged Wednesday from Hollywood (the industry and the state of mind) to the legacy of Joey Buttafuoco, from infomercials to the spat between Zsa Zsa and Elke.

“Ah, L.A.--Sodom and Gomorrah with cable,” Midler said early in the show, prancing around the stage in a blue pantsuit, in front of her nine-piece band and the latest edition of her Harlettes vocal trio.

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Looking out at a glitzy opening-night audience that included many of the film world’s power players, the singer-actress, whose own movie career has had some much-publicized lows, compared the attitude in Hollywood to a bungee jump--"a lot of people standing around seeing how far you can fall.”

The 48-year-old singer may have had record hits, movie hits and, thanks now to “Gypsy,” TV hits, but she shines most on stage, where she can put the music and merriment together in a single liberating package.

Since her earliest club performances, Midler has been the best medicine you can buy without a prescription.

By denying the differences in the ‘70s between what was considered campy and cool, Midler disarmed us with her shamelessly extroverted manner on stage--a throwback to the vaudeville/nightclub brashness that had been discarded as a relic during the rock era.

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In doing so, she helped us laugh at ourselves and believe, however dark the times, that a silver lining truly was behind every cloud.

When the curtain rose Wednesday, it was only fitting that the stage was dominated by the image of a cloud. As the music started, Midler, her smile as bright as a 500-watt bulb, emerged from behind it singing “Friends,” one of her trademark feel-good songs.

“I bet you were expecting a beefier person,” she said good-naturedly, leading into a rap routine about looking good. But the rap and the show--with its excellent costuming and set designs--were really about feeling good.

In the early part of the two-act production, the music was secondary to the action, which ranged from the Sophie-style jokes to a warm and witty salute to old-time burlesque.

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After intermission, Midler returned as DeLago, a mermaid who speeds around the stage in a motorized wheelchair, all the more adorable for the way she manages to mishandle such can’t-miss standards as “MacArthur Park” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

The segment ended gloriously with Midler and her fellow mermaids as a Rockettes-style chorus line, flapping their fins furiously in their wheelchairs.

It’s too bad Midler didn’t expand the DeLago routine to include a parody of her own hit “From a Distance.” Amid all the evening’s irreverence, the number seemed even more bloated than it does on record.

In the final half hour, Midler, singing with richness and character, focused on music, conveying both the sweet innocence of “Do You Want to Dance,” the ‘50s R&B; hit, and the tender heartache of “Hello in There,” John Prine’s memorable look at the neglect of old people.

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Midler said good night with “The Glory of Love,” with its classic refrain about how in life you win a little, lose a little. In some ways, the selection seemed almost too neat a summary of the evening’s uplifting message.

But she sang the song with such warmth and heart that even it came out a winner. On this night, it was yet another example of the glory of Bette.


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