The huge screen on the Caesars Palace stage reveals a Nevada billboard bearing a poster of Bette Midler. She's posed in a cute blue dress with a short skirt that shows off her indestructibly fabulous gams; her smile is so electric it could light every casino on the Strip. A donkey wanders past, seemingly unimpressed, as, in the distance, a storm gathers strength. It morphs into a tornado, sending croupiers and chorines whizzing across the skyscape like Miss Gulch over Kansas. The door to an airborne Port-A-Potty swings open and an Elvis impersonator falls out. Now the video images give way to a crowd of real people on stage: three backup singers (the Staggering Harlettes) and 18 dancers. This is Vegas, baby. And riding in on that donkey, live and in person, all 5'1" of her, is the Divine Miss M. "Boy," she exclaims, in full twinkle, "is my ass tired!"
She will be by the end of The Showgirl Must Go On, a 90-min. workout session that officially opens tonight and will play five times a week, 20 weeks a year. The other two headliners who will sport on the Coliseum stage when Bette's resting will be Elton John and Cher. "Me, Elton and Cher," she says of Caesar's year-round headliners, as a 1975 photo of the three flashes on the rear screen. "Does it get any gayer?"
Midler has come a long way since she was the gay guys' pin-up girl at the Continental Baths in Manhattan. She's 62 now, and her fans have matured with her. "Thirty years ago my audiences were on drugs," she confides. "Now they're on medication." Frequently she complains that she hasn't got the old energy. "Omigod I'm exhausted!" she apostrophizes after her very first number adding, in re certain pop-star lip-synchers who've played the Strip, "That's what happens when you do your own songs."
Bette's show follows the five-year run of Celine Dion's A New Day. That elephantine extravaganza, staged by ex-Cirque du Soleil director Franco Dragone, submerged the singer in gigantic sets and CGI effusions: rolling clouds, meteor showers, shooting stars. Midler jokes that she has come to "the only city that could teach Kraft about cheese" because of "the sh-tload of money they're payin' me." There's plenty of money lavished on the production too: $10 million (as she mentions three or four times during the evening), and it boasts some luscious videographic effects. Oh, and Midler does make an appearance wreathed in a 3200-lb. headdress of pink feathers. But Showgirl, written by Eric Kornfeld and Bruce Vilanch, and choreographed by Toni Basil, keeps its focus on the star. It's a big satin pillow for her outsize talents to cuddle up in.
"We're gonna take you where you've never been," the star announces. Is that a promise or a threat? Actually, she's gonna take you back to all the old familiar places: to clips of early Bette singing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" as current Bette performs the same steps; to the mermaid chanteuse Dolores Delago, flapping her fin tail as she zips across the stage in a motorized wheelchair; to the '70s anthem "Pretty Legs and Great Big Knockers," its brass and sass intact; to reprises of the signature ballads "The Rose," "The Wind Beneath My Wings" and (the unnecessary but apparently mandatory) "From a Distance." These are signposts of the part of the country her fans call home: Midler America. That's what keeps 'em comin' back for more.
The songs, the nonstop snazz and of course the bawdry or, as she puts it, "hits, glitz and tremendous tits." Innuendo goes out the window when Miss M. comes to town. The clerk at the ticket desk offers the friendly warning that this is "adult entertainment," and inside you'll hear Midler caution the crowd, "Please don't call the Pope if you see a tit or two." You won't have to phone Rome; skinwise, the show is pretty chaste. Bette relies on one of her longtime characters Soph (for Sophie Tucker), the oldest babe in show business to supply the raunch dressing. "My tits have fallen so far South they're speakin' Spanish," Soph confesses before telling a few ribald classics. Since this is a family website, I'll withhold the punch lines and tease you with a couple of the setups: "If I'd know you were a virgin I would've been gentler." And "Have you ever been picked up by the fuzz?" (Cappers and rim shots available upon written request.)
The big set piece has Dolores Delago dreaming that she is getting career counsel from the American Idol judges (their faces rendered in increasingly distorted funhouse images). "You should be in Vegas," Simon says. But when she gets there, ready to star in her classy aquatic revue, she finds she's not booked at Cirque du Soleil but at a Daze Inn motel where the water attraction is called Sunque du So Low. Ever the trouper, Dolores dons Elvis cape and shades and belts out "Viva Las Vegas," "It's Now or Never"and "My Way." So she's performing in the motel pool; so lightning strikes her. The lady is fulfilling her destiny: she's in the business she calls show.
The real Bette Midler, chantootsie extraordinaire, got the crowd to sing along with "The Rose" while waving their cell phones like cigarette lighters at a '60s concert. Still, she's at her best not so much in the pop ballads that gave her mid-career a Top 40 lift, as in a plaintive ballad like John Prine's "Hello in There," or her rave-up of "When a Man Loves a Woman." They're terrific songs, and prove the lady's still got the lung power. (Does she take requests? Please, then, an encore of her late-70s gut-destroyer "Stay With Me.")
As Soph, Midler passes along some folk wisdom for the business that we call show: "Find your light. They can't love you if they don't see you." Bette has been radiating that light for nearly four decades; you'd think she'd be worn out by now. But The Showgirl Must Go On displays the sexy sexagenarian at the top of her form. There's simply no one who can match Midler as a full-service mesmerizer all-singing, all-talking, all heart and soul. Here's a sure thing for high rollers: Go to Vegas, and bet on Bette.
Read an earlier piece by Richard Corliss about Bette Midler here.