'The people's diva' sets up shop in Vegas

Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- Bette Midler is brash, funny, schmaltzy, surprising, poignant, charming, provocative, witty, bawdy and, of course, divine. She knows where Hollywood keeps its skeletons, and she's not afraid to throw open closet doors and drag out what she finds within. She's an absolute master of the stinging put-down, she can belt a big brassy ballad second to none, do a bit of hoofing and is an Academy Award nominee to boot.

So how come nobody ever got Miss M to host the Oscars?

What seems like a match made in heaven remains, at least until Gilbert Cates wises up and drafts her, Hollywood's loss. And now it's Sin City's gain.

On Sunday, Midler thanked the capacity crowd "for TiVo-ing the Oscars tonight so you could be here" at the fourth night into her new gig at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace.

She's jumping in with both flippers for a two-year stint in the spot vacated in December by Celine Dion, and for the 4,300-capacity theater, it's truly going to be a whole new day.

Her 90-minute revue, "The Showgirl Must Go On," doesn't differ significantly from her concert act -- she covers her hits and gives generous chunks of time to her two main alter egos: Dolores Delago, the wheelchair-propelled singing mermaid, and the deliciously ribald Soph, the world's oldest showgirl.

But as with everything in Vegas in general and Caesars Palace in particular, it's now much bigger, shinier and even more over the top, as you'd expect with a reported $10-million budget.

"It's my most divine divine yet," she said at the outset. "I'm a . . . goddess!" a statement that neatly crystallized the merger of spiritual and temporal that makes Midler's performances such a delight.

Her entree into Vegas culture seems like a no-brainer. Yet alongside the kind of shows that have come to dominate the Strip's entertainment scene, such as multiple Cirque du Soleil stagings and their clones ("La Reve") as well as Blue Man Group and baby boomer-minded musicals ("Spamalot"), Midler's revue is a high-energy celebration of, and return to, classic American stage performance.

Although she launched her career in the 1970s, she's always relied heavily on pre-rock traditions: vaudeville-style performance, Borscht Belt comedy and Vegas kitsch, all informed with a liberating rock 'n' roll attitude.

What she pulls off so skillfully is a yin-yang juxtaposition of low comedy and high art.

In her extended, characteristically outrageous skit as Delago, she's now flanked not just by her three deliberately trashy Harlettes backup singers but also by 18 more dancers in the same regalia and matching wheelchairs. (She introduced the chorus line as "the Caesar Salad Girls" and advised "the best thing is that not one of them is a French-Canadian circus performer!")

With hardly a breath after that bit concluded, she reappeared in a simple black dress. Standing behind a scrim with black and white images of a decaying big city, she sang John Prine's exquisite portrait of the loneliness that can accompany old age, "Hello in There," which she originally recorded in 1972.

She devoted more time to outrageous humor than musical drama and often jabbed at Vegas conventions, throwing zingers at Toni Braxton's hotel-sized image across the street from Caesars and doing bits with Wayne Newton (his voice, anyway) and Elvis (a not-so-incredible simulation). And noting that the new rotation of big-name talent at the Colosseum (where she plays through March, then takes a break before resuming in June) includes her friends Cher and Elton John, she quipped, "Could it get any gayer?"

Still, with each straightforward song, mostly outwardly syrupy ballads such as "The Rose" and "The Wind Beneath My Wings," Midler extracted something more than what's inherent in each and provided the substance that prevented the lighter bits from turning the show completely frivolous.

She transformed Julie Gold's "From a Distance" into something beyond a plea for everyone on Earth to just get along. In its "Imagine"-like wish for a better world, Midler hit the final word in a line about singing "songs of peace" with a force that decisively drove the political point home. Then she emphasized the spiritual dimension in the yearning-cautionary tone she brought to the lyric "God is watching us." Dimensions you don't expect in a Vegas show.

The 14-piece band, led by musical director Bette Sussman, followed her adroitly from the understated balladry of "Hello in There" to the big-band swing of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."

There were surprisingly few opening-week glitches -- a faulty parasol in one number, a recalcitrant wind sock in another. The set list isn't flawless yet; her use of Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" makes a problematic lyric even trickier as sung from a woman's perspective. There are a dozen other choices she could make to demonstrate her credibility in a classic soul ballad.

But befitting her self-description as "the people's diva," Midler didn't spend much time fretting the little stuff or trying to conceal how much effort goes into anchoring a show like hers. "If I have to cross this stage once more," she said, huffing and puffing her way across its 200-foot expanse, "I'm going to have a stroke!"

Despite the great shape she seems to have gotten her 62-year-old body into for this adventure, she wasn't entirely kidding. In contrast to the all-around perfectionism of a Celine-style diva, by letting the seams show Midler becomes that much more human. And the more human she seems, the more truly divine she is.

randy.lewis@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°