Bette Midler dazzles at Caesars Palace
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Bette Midler dazzles at Caesars Palace
by Ron Anders - SGN A&E Writer

Bette Midler
January 24
Caesars Palace
Las Vegas

"I am the people's diva!" Bette Midler declares at the start of The Showgirl Must Go On, her glittering, career-capping show at Caesars Palace. And who dares to disagree? Now midway through her two-year stint in Las Vegas, the Divine One reestablishes her exalted position as the greatest of musical stage performers, the personification of showbiz bravado and sweet sentiment.

As the lights go down in the huge, 4,000 seat Colosseum theater (aka The House That Celine Built), we are enveloped by a Cinerama-size screen on which an animated tornado wreaks havoc on Sin City. When the cartoon storm passes, the real Miss M appears - ablaze in silver sequins - atop a mountain of Louis Vuitton luggage, assuring her adoring audience that she is still alive and kicking. (The lady has always known how to make an entrance.) For the next 90 minutes she doesn't stop kicking - and singing, dancing, joking and swearing, while running to and fro (with her trademark mincing walk) across one of the largest stages in the world. She promises a show filled with "hits, glitz and tits" - and doesn't disappoint.

Midler sticks to tried-and-true material here, fashioning a revue that boasts her greatest hits, packed into this fast moving revel in gleeful vulgarity and inspiration. But even her most ardent fans will be thrilled by the electrifying show she constructs around her musical landmarks. She is backed up by the latest incarnation of the Harlettes, her worshipful backup trio and a 14-piece band that helps Midler raise the roof time and again. We are also treated to the Caesar Salad Girls, 20 showgirls par excellence, who dance and prance with joyful precision in true Vegas fashion.

From her early recording days (on vinyl!) she fashions a seductive "Do You Wanna Dance?" surrounded by her coterie of scantily clad, parasol-toting showgirls, and includes her self-designated national anthem, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," which put campy '40s harmony back in vogue - and put her on the showbiz map. Vegas vacationers may know her only for her much-laurelled inspirational ballads - "The Rose," "Wind Beneath My Wings," "From A Distance" - which she sings with aching intensity. I shudder to think how cloying these songs would sound in the hands of another performer.

The evening's most touching interludes have Midler holding the immense stage by herself, sweetly crooning "The Glory of Love" while accompanying herself on a ukulele, then passionately tearing into "When A Man Loves A Woman." Her fresh approach to songs she has been performing for decades evidences her consummate skills as songbird and actress.

A Midler spectacle would not be complete without appearances by her most beloved alter egos. Delores del Lago, the desperate-to-dazzle mermaid (this time in sparkly lavender scales), whizzes around the stage in a motorized wheelchair with a virtual army of other sea nymphs in her wake. On the aforementioned gigantic screen, the American Idol judges argue over the questionable merits of Delores' act. (Delores gets the last laugh, of course.) Helping our mermaid with an identity crisis is Elvis (an impersonator, onscreen), who she adopts as her "fairy godfather." We also get an audience with Soph, the oldest living showgirl (whose character is a tribute to Sophie Tucker, her bawdy predecessor) whose jokes are as old as she is, but still manage to deliver huge laughs.

Her most endearing persona, of course, is the Divine Miss M herself - tiny in stature, bigger than life, supremely assured but hilariously self-deprecating. Midler created her unique performance niche by fondly embracing the tacky side of showbiz (is there another side?) while simultaneously skewering it, mining every last laugh from the pretensions of celebrity. She may poke fun at herself, but she slyly lets us know just how fabulous she knows she is. (In a previous Vegas engagement, she winkingly informed us: "I don't get out much. I don't have to. I'm a star!") It is this raucous sense of humor and no-nonsense performing style that set her apart from other divas (take note, Barbra and Madonna) who never deign to poke fun at themselves or their well-crafted images.

One of the major delights of Midler's shows is that they are, well, shows. Her keen sense of what will provide theatrical goosebumps is unparalleled. The set design of "The Showgirl Must Go On" (by Michael Levine) is no exception: highlights include a curtain made of gold coins that morphs into a forest and a storm of raindrops; projected images of a bygone New York City (backdrop to her piercing, heartfelt take on John Prine's "Hello In There"); and Soph's immense headdress, a riot of pink feathers that reach to the rafters.

In their zeal to get audiences out of the theaters and into the casinos, Vegas producers have all but mandated that all shows can run no longer than 90 minutes. This is my only bone to pick with Midler's show. Why squeeze Midler's formidable myriad talents into a shorter performance when she's at her best with a little more breathing room? One of the pleasures of her touring concerts has been a generous two-and-a-half-hour running time. As a diehard fan, I missed the wonderful, often obscure musical gems she has unearthed in past shows.

Since her rise to fame in the early 1970s, Midler has been a very hot ticket and an increasingly pricey one as well. (Tickets to this show top out at $250 - but given my burnished memories of the many Midler shows I've seen, I have never regretted buying a ticket, though I may have been late in paying the rent.) While her stunning film debut as the Joplin-esque singer in "The Rose" assured a rich film career and an international audience, Midler has always been a creature of the stage, where she can unleash her unrivaled talent and charisma.

Midler's appearance will continue through this year, playing in rotation with Cher and Elton John. Reflecting on this, she asks us: "Does it get any Gayer?" In her last worldwide tour, the gorgeously mounted "Kiss My Brass," her mantra was "I'm not retiring and you can't make me!" Let's hope she stays true to her promise and goes on forever. No other performer offers us such a heady mix of music (pop and vintage), comedy and theatrical spectacle - and nobody does it better. She jokes about her advancing age, but her energy never flags.

In typically Divine fashion, after a particularly passionate musical workout, she breathlessly announces to us: "I'm exhausted! That's what happens when you do your own singing!"