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October 21, 2014

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The Showgirl’s great, but the rest of the show …

Even in Vegas, there’s such a thing as too much

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Ethan Miller / Getty Images for AEG Live / Concerts West

Twenty showgirls surround Bette Midler during “Bette Midler: The Showgirl Must Go On,” which opened Friday at Caesars Palace.

IF YOU GO

What: “Bette Midler: The Showgirl Must Go On”

Where: The Colosseum at Caesars Palace

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday

Admission: $95, $140, $175 and $250; (877) 723-8836, www.ticketmaster.com

Beyond the Sun

Bette Midler built her four-decade career on famously never needing padding. So why has she stuffed her Las Vegas revue with so much filler? There’s a solid 45-minute concert at the heart of her revue, “The Showgirl Must Go On,” which opened Friday at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace. And Midler is clearly giving it her all up there. But the gems in this dream set are swaddled and obscured by too much sparkly stuff.

Heavily hyped, highly anticipated, Midler’s “Showgirl” is the great bright hope of the Strip. Will it become a destination attraction like its unprecedented predecessor? Can it fill 4,300 seats five nights a week for two years; bring in the international, intergenerational crowds; rescue the economy?

A buffet-style show that serves up all the favorites any card-carrying member of Les Midlerables would care to hear, it puts more than enough eye- and ear-candy on the Colosseum stage. An affectionate valentine to vaudeville and girlie shows and ghosts of Vegas past, it’s tightly scripted and a bit rushed: Midler and the audience step aboard for the ride, which lets us all out in the gift shop.

After a windy widescreen “overture” that depicts Midler literally blowing Vegas away, the star rises from the stage atop a mountain of steamer trunks.

“And that’s just the carry-ons!” she crows. And we’re off.

At 62, she looks sensational and sounds swell. Midler starts strong and snappy with a five-song run of the good stuff, getting the crowd “In the Mood” with sass, swing and her trademarked stutter-stagger-step.

“I feel like turning this place into the biggest karaoke bar in the world,” Midler beams, and the audience gratefully sings right along with her. There’s a collective sigh and swoon as she stands in a scarlet spotlight and unfurls “The Rose,” and a hankies-out moment when Midler (barefoot in a tangerine goddess gown, against a sun-dappled forest backdrop) delivers “From a Distance,” another of her mother-of-us-all Big Ballads.

Later we’re treated to a chain of charmingly dusty, dirty jokes a la Sophie Tucker. And the evening’s most joyous moment arrives with the brassy blast of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and the adorable apparition of early-’70s “Miss M” — in triplicate! — on the big video screen.

“Showgirl” hits a snag — more like an iceberg — about a half-hour in, at the shticky centerpiece. Midler brings back long-ago concert staple Delores Delago — a washed-up mermaid showgirl who croons and careens in a wheelchair — and plops her into a Vegas-centric fantasia saddled by a drawn-out nod to “American Idol,” a parody medley of ’70s hits barnacled with fishy puns, and (ugh) an Elvis impersonator on the big screen.

Cleverly choreographed by Toni Basil — wheelchairs a-whizzing, tails flipping — the routine is capped with a sight gag on the kicky, kaleidoscope precision of the ’50s-era June Taylor Dancers. But Midler overestimates the appeal of the character, and at nearly 30 minutes, what should be a bit eats up almost a third of the show — time which could be spent, well, singing. Let’s hope she gives Delago the hook, or at least fillets this segment considerably.

Midler is immediately back in heart-rending form with “Hello in There,” a lament for lonely old people.

She stops — and probably should end the show — with a wall-to-wall, all-stops-out, definitive rendition of “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

And in a particularly sweet moment, she perches at the edge of the stage and gently croons “The Glory of Love,” softly strumming a pink, crystal-encrusted ukulele (you can buy one next door at the Bette Midler boutique for $2,500).

It’s in these precious moments, when Midler steps out, stands still and simply sings that this “Showgirl” truly delivers. Her audience is hungry to look at her, hear her, be with her.

Never a conventionally “pretty singer,” Midler at her best is a singing actor, an expressive interpreter, all persona. America’s Edith Piaf. Funny and touching, she commands the stage with such absolute ease that it’s hard to figure out why she agreed to all the distracting frippery.

No one would begrudge the star a breather between bouts of belting. And every showgirl needs time for a costume change (or six). But the pretty-enough entr’actes — delicate umbrella dances and frothy feather displays — seem beside the point.

It all leaves this all-purpose entertainer and her troupe trying hard — too hard — to fill the Colosseum’s vast, 120-foot expanse of a stage. “If I cross this stage one more time, I’ll have a stroke,” she cracks breathlessly. “The showgirl must sit down,” she pants soon after.

Midler makes repeated mention of the $10 million cost of the “Showgirl” production. An alternative title for this show might be “The Dancing Curtains with Bette Midler”: The show’s signature look is sweeping, shifting swaths of shimmering, glimmering strands, screens and scrims.

It’s as if someone said, “We’ve got all this fancy machinery, we’d better use it.”

But the more stuff they throw up there above and behind and around Midler — the 20 lovely but generic showgirls, the CinemaScope scenery — the smaller she appears. Midler is one of the few remaining performers who doesn’t need effects and extras. We can get that stuff anywhere.

Here’s hoping this “Showgirl” gets her act together and goes on for a good long time.

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