Oh, Bette. You just keeping getting better.
43 years after the release of her 1972 debut album, “The Divine Miss M,” co-produced by Barry Manilow, her piano accompanist during her formative Bathhouse Betty days at New York City’s now-defunct Ansonia Hotel, Bette Midler still knows how to make grown men and women cry.
In a good way.
The Staples Center Thursday night was filled with weepy, swooning fans of the Grammy and Golden Globe-winning songstress-actress-comedian, whose L.A. stop on her 24-city “Divine Intervention” tour — her first road show in a decade — was a spectacular theatrical mash-up of variety-hour-meets-vaudeville-act-meets-Broadway-one-woman-show. The concert featured a set list of wartime radio tunes (“I’ve Still Got My Health,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”), sultry deep cuts (“Do You Want to Dance,” “Stay with Me”), sexy supper-club renditions of rock and roll classics (the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden”) and femme-centric ditties like TLC’s 1995 hip-hop ballad “Waterfalls,” a track off Midler’s “It’s the Girls!” tribute anthology performed with so much soul and sadness, half the women in section 101 went clambering for pretzel napkins to dab the smudged mascara off their tear-stained faces.
At 69 years-old, with legs like a Rockette and a voice as rich and smooth as velvet, Midler is such a charismatic wonder it’s a shame she doesn’t run for president. The legendary star has lost nothing of the bawdy wit and madcap antics — “I’m going to lift your spirits like a boob job,” she teased the crowd — with which she started out in the late-1960’s, a ginger-haired, Hawaiian-born Jewess who cut her teeth on the great white way, where for three years she played Tzeitel in the original Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” sweeping the stage with a broom, pining for a more glamorous life that would surely come.
“Don’t I look fabulous? I’m a triumph of science and fiction,” said Midler, primping her now-flaxen coif and parading around stage in a slinky pink shift before launching into a rousing version of “I Look Good.”
“I’m in better shape than this year’s Lakers,” she joked.
Midler’s feisty passion for girl groups, female empowerment and “rescuing old songs” — the Harlettes, her singing-dancing backup trio, were as coy and flamboyant as ever during a deliciously campy “Bird in the Hand” bit — proved fortuitous for fans at the May 28 show, who were treated to a high-energy cover of The Exciters’ 1962 single “Tell Him,” the song that, as Midler regaled, made Dusty Springfield want to become a pop singer. Midler’s nostalgic nod to all the yiddishe mamas in the house, “Bei Mir Bistu Schoen,” a love song made famous by the Andrews Sisters, was not only the most Jewish moment of the night (in a show that was uniformly Jew-ish) but a poignant one, for it’s the song Midler’s parents, whom she “lost long ago,” would sing to her as a little girl.
Midler’s show was expectedly chock full of signature shtick, from an uproarious parody of the Oscars, “The Oysters,” complete with a mock “in memoriam (1980-2014)” montage honoring Delores DeLago, the fictional wheelchair-bound mermaid, and a satirical slideshow of Midler canoodling with such famous men as Vladimir Putin and Bruce Jenner. “I could kick myself for not monetizing my sex life,” she quipped of the booming Kardashian Empire.
But it was Midler’s biting commentary on the condition of the human race that best underscored her unflappable genius, not only as an entertainer, but as an acutely astute social pundit.
“I miss handwritten notes and bookstores and LPs,” lamented Midler, driven by a wistful longing for a simpler past that didn’t include the bewildering maelstrom of computer apps and social media sites. “Remember when people were afraid of being followed?”
There was comfort in what Midler assured the crowd: “Everything you need to know you already do.” A point made ever more melodic in her cover of Leonard Cohen’s moody dirge “Everybody Knows.”
After an emotional, arena-wide sing-along of “The Rose,” duly punctuated by swaying hands and twinkling iPhone lights, Midler’s encore included the smash hits “From a Distance” and “Beaches” theme song, “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which won a Grammy for record of the year in 1990 and has appeared on the set list of almost every bar mitzvah and wedding band since.
“What a weird and wonderful town,” Midler told audience members, thanking them profusely for their unwavering support as her eyes welled up with tears of gratitude and joy.