Saturday, January 17, 2009
Wednesday night in Las Vegas. Birthday celebration
The Showgirl Must go on
A Naughty-but-Nice Miss M Sets Up Shop in Sin City
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
Published: March 3, 2008
LAS VEGAS — Just what this city desperately needed: a bracing injection of vulgarity.
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Laura Rauch for The New York Times
Bette Midler, queen of a Louis Vuitton mountain in Las Vegas.
Bette Midler, who ignited a career by giving a good name to bad taste, has arrived in this sprawling gambling mecca, a steroidal temple of tackiness. And she claims to be right at home.
For as she merrily boasts in her new extravaganza, “The Showgirl Must Go On,” she has been telling dirty jokes for three decades, and flashed her flesh way back in the day. (Not for the paparazzi either, like these crazy kids today, but for paying audiences, thank you very much.) Sin city, antiseptic and corporate though it mostly feels today, is her kind of town.
Ms. Midler has lost little of the verve, bawdiness and originality that first captivated gay audiences back in the early 1970s. That hip-wiggling strut — how many entertainers can be said to have a trademark walk, by the way? — is every bit as manic, even if the heels are a tad lower. The voice still throbs with palpable feeling, even when the sentiment would sound ersatz sung by almost any other performer.
But Ms. Midler’s movie career has brought her a wide audience, and the culture has happily embraced all that once seemed transgressive in her act. By the standards of today her winking brand of vulgarity — the old-school Sophie Tucker gags, the jubilant camping — seems positively wholesome.
So it is that Ms. Midler is now installed in the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, where Celine Dion recently held court for a five-year stint. Ms. Midler has moved in with her own $10 million spectacular, playing five nights a week for a total of about 100 performances a year for two years. Beginning in May, Cher will alternate with her in this cavernous space of more than 4,000 seats, where Elton John is also in residence. Noting the appeal of this showbiz trinity, Ms. Midler quipped, “Does it get any gayer?” Well, possibly — O Barbra, where art thou? Is it a little dismaying for longtime fans of Ms. Midler to find her installed in Las Vegas as the latest luxury product for high rollers in a city awash in them? (Ticket prices top out at $250, which could also buy dinner for one at Guy Savoy in the same hotel.) Well, possibly. And “The Showgirl Must Go On,” a career survey offering a sort of Midler 101, is clearly aimed at the masses who flock to this city in stupefying numbers in fervid search of ways to get rid of their money.
In a speedy 90 minutes (apparently the maximum time audiences here will agree to be entertained away from the slots and tables), and backed by a strong 13-piece band, Ms. Midler performs virtually all of her hits and signature tunes. She sings with a polish — and in a few cases, an emotional intensity — that belies the passing of the years and the many occasions on which she has been called upon to perform them before. Now 62, she makes self-pitying sport of her supposed infirmity in the course of her dash through her songbook, but when the encore arrives — the inexorable, the inevitable, dare I say the infernal “Wind Beneath My Wings” — Ms. Midler hits all the notes with breath to spare.
After a somewhat uninspired entrance — the diva ascends from under center stage atop an enormous pile of Louis Vuitton luggage. Ms. Midler, trim in a silver sequined pantsuit, her hair a nimbus of tight blond curls, hurls herself into high gear to perform the blazingly funny title song, a new composition that pays witty homage to that great Las Vegas institution of the showgirl.
Racing back and forth across the truly colossal Colosseum stage (it is 120 feet wide) Ms. Midler showers the audience in tart patter — she laments that she’s got an adjustable rate mortgage on the place — and introduces her latest trio of backup singers, the Harlettes (2.0? 3.0? 12.0?), and the 20 leggy chorines who back them up. “The best thing is, not one of them is a French-Canadian circus performer,” she exults, referring to the ubiquity of the Cirque du Soleil brand in the city.
Interspersed with performances of all her standards — “Do You Want to Dance?,” “From a Distance,” “Hello in There,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” — are affectionate nods to entertainers associated with Las Vegas. The city was once a refuge for the oddballs and also-rans of showbiz, so Ms. Midler’s Delores DeLago character, the wheelchair-riding mermaid with the odoriferous lounge act, is naturally right at home.
She is introduced, via video, by the arbiters of “American Idol,” and sings a medley of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra hits. Soph, the naughty jokemistress modeled on Sophie Tucker, is reimagined here as an indomitable showgirl, encumbered by a headdress “half the size of Tennessee,” in another standout segment.
Ms. Midler’s outsize persona — the Divine thing — serves her well here. Staging a show of this kind on a long strip of stage must be like putting a Broadway show on a subway platform. The strain sometimes shows; even 20 leggy women aren’t quite enough to eat up the space, and the choreography by Toni Basil, delightful in the Soph-and-the-showgirls segment, flounders at other points.
The set designs, by the opera veteran Michael Levine, are dominated by a series of shimmering curtains of gold coins that pay elegant tribute to the tradition of Las Vegas glitz. But there’s no escaping the flattening influence of the giant video screen that looms over the stage and makes the space feel a bit like a supersize Imax theater.
That Ms. Midler is capable of instantly warming up a room this daunting and filling a stage this forbidding is a testament to her consummate skills as an entertainer. The temperature dips now and then, but she keeps the antiseptic at bay with regular infusions of the down-and-dirty earthiness that is so central to her appeal.
Flinging herself on her back at one point, in mock exhaustion, she crankily observes that her predecessor “must have been a robot.” Having seen Ms. Dion’s show, I can attest to the perspicacity of that assessment.
Nobody leaving “The Showgirl Must Go On” will confuse Ms. Midler with a mechanical contraption. She still tears into the soulful ballad “When a Man Loves a Woman,” to cite just one example, with a fierceness that excavates every ounce of pain from it.
Like all great showgirls, she may wear sequins like a second skin, but the woman underneath is all flesh and blood, humor and heart.