The Divine Miss M lives, and then some. Ten years of Disney hasn’t tamed Bette Midler’s wildly electrifying stage persona any more than a lengthy absence from concert halls has diminished a remarkable talent for live performance. In fine voice and complete control of a worshipful New York audience, Midler stormed through the first of 30 record-setting nights at Radio City Music Hall in a show that embraces every era of her roller-coaster career.
Longtime fans might have feared that the family-fare films that made Midler a household name might also have supplanted the singer’s vintage, bawdy trash-with-flash style. The fears would be unfounded. Midler’s skills — and they are many — include a feat worthy of the best illusionist: She convinces her audience that Miss M, the campy, irreverent and perennial outsider-looking-in, has all along been lurking within the Hollywood superstar who serenaded Carson and fills studio coffers.
That Midler accomplishes this without the least bit of disingenuousness accounts in part for the enthusiastic welcome her tour has inspired. That the show is a knockout doesn’t hurt.
Descending onto the stage via a golden sunburst, Midler spent the next two-and-a-half hours (with a 20-minute intermission) offering top-notch renditions of her greatest hits, both musical and comic. Backed by a tight, if over-amplified, seven-piece band, the singer performed tunes stretching back more than 20 years (“Do You Wanna Dance,” John Prine’s “Hello in There”) to more recent Hollywood soundtracks (“Wind Beneath My Wings,””From a Distance”).
Nothing if not versatile, Midler’s repertoire includes everything from gospel-style raves (“Delta Dawn”) to the Janis Joplin-like rock of “Stay With Me ,” not to mention the nostalgic tunes she was originally associated with (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,””Drinking Again”). Midler’s choice of material has always been a bit spotty, particularly in her penchant for the sometimes maudlin songs she knowingly calls her “inspirational ballads.” Fortunately, this show features her strongest material.
In a nod to show-biz past and Midler’s future, she did an extended comedic tribute to burlesque that led to a brash Act 1 curtain closer: “Rose’s Turn,” an enticing preview of her upcoming TV “Gypsy.”
The show’s comic bits also had a best-of feel. Back onstage were the mermaid in a wheelchair, the Sophie Tucker jokes and the naughty banter with a new crop of “politically correct” Harlets. Midler nails each of the bits.
Show’s career-retrospective style has its down side: The disparate material occasionally gives the evening a herky-jerky pace, and, perhaps more significantly, no new ground is broken.
Not that any of that will matter a whit to the largely sold-out houses.