Monday, Jan. 12, 2009 | 2 a.m.
IF YOU GO
What: Bette Midler: “The Showgirl Must Go On”
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday through Sunday, dark Monday and Thursday
Where: The Colosseum at Caesars Palace
Admission: $95-$250; 731-7110, www.caesarspalace.com
Running time: 90 minutes
Audience advisory: Scantily clad showgirls, salty language
Beyond the Sun
A good Vegas show has become a great Vegas show.
After nearly a year at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, Bette Midler’s “The Showgirl Must Go On” is a streamlined, elegant, grown-up show, a show for people who have lived life, who have a sense of history, humor and the pain that comes with it.
The show now fits its star, rather than her trying to fit the show, compete with scale of the stage, the expectations and the decorations, which include 18 chorines (the Caesar Salad Girls), and three backing singer-dancers (the Staggering Harlettes). Although she takes a few good-natured pokes at her predecessor, Celine Dion, Midler’s not trying to outdo anyone technologically now. With all the glamorous, glittery stuff that’s going on around her, the focus remains squarely on her — she finds her light, and stays in it.
Midler owns this stage, all 7,000 square feet of it. And from the opening number, the audience is hers, too. She’s relaxed and feeling the music, visibly enjoying the lucky luxury of having the ideal gig.
At several points, the show makes sport about Midler “going Vegas.” As in Vegas as the end of the road, the final destination for a working performer.
Here’s the thing: Even in another time and another economy, any performer should be so lucky to go Vegas, especially with a setup like Midler’s. She gets to stay put for weeks at a time, perform her self-selected music in a glorious setting for an adoring audience, most of whom have traveled far to see her.
Superstars should be lining up to “go Vegas,” in fact, but the vast majority of them lack the stamina, the dependability, the deep catalog of hits, the intergenerational, multinational appeal, and the sheer heart it takes to fill a 4,300-seat theater night after night.
When she first appeared in the early 1970s, Midler was an anomaly, an on-purpose anachronism, steeped in black-and-white movies, mostly melodrama, musicals and women’s pictures and screwball comedies. With outsize features packed into a compact chassis, she brimmed with affection for all-but-forgotten camp and kitsch icons, girl groups and divas.
Midler grew up on big personalities and great stars, and now she’s really the last of them. She is showbiz. This isn’t to say she’s old-fashioned or retro — she is the vividly alive connection with the long line that connects vaudeville and Broadway and Hollywood and Vegas.
Surprise should be kept surprising, so I won’t recap the show, but here are a few highlights:
Always known for grand entrances, Midler doesn’t disappoint, as she’s revealed after an amusing widescreen video “overture” that features Midler blowing into town and tearing up the Strip.
“I’m alive,” she beams, as if there were ever any doubt, and whether teetering and tottering in heels and a silver lamé suit or swaddled in pink feathers and rhinestones, she looks and sounds swell.
Set against constantly reconfiguring glittering curtains, sweeping, shifting swathes of shimmering, glimmering strands, screens and scrims, the show’s four distinct sections are getting along better, with the first part delivering a concert-style vantage of Midler the singer, alone at center stage with a song.
A comic break serves up Midler’s tabloid take on the current crop of bad girls (“I opened the door for singers with dirty mouths and big (breasts), and don’t you forget it,” she crows). A previously overextended segment featuring Delores Delago, where Midler’s famous washed-up-mermaid-showgirl character dreams of her Vegas comeback, is now a pleasure, complete with ’80s hits delivered with stinky fish puns, cameos by the “American Idol” hosts, and nocturnal visits by Elvis and Wayne Newton.
“Showgirl” is a very girly show, bedazzled with fishnets, feathers, fans, and, as the song says, “pretty legs and great big knockers.” And the finale delivers a visually luscious tribute to bygone eras of showgirls, crowned by Midler’s stream of venerable, salty Sophie Tucker jokes that still kill.
“I’ve been telling those jokes for 40 years — and you’ve been laughing at them for 40 years,” says Midler, sincerely thanking the faithful (which, she notes earlier, has gone from being on drugs to being on medication.)
Best of all, Midler sounds just like herself. Which is to say, unlike anybody else. Backed by a 13-piece onstage band (which includes Las Vegas’ own six-man Fat City Horns), she takes her time on all the hits you could hope for, unfurling “The Rose,” the early exuberance of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” the soul-baring, showstopping “When A Man Loves A Woman” and the inevitable “Wind Beneath My Wings” encore. Suffusing nearly every number is a note of hope and encouragement: “Showgirl” might have been alternately titled “Songs For a New Depression,” which is what Midler presciently named her third album in 1976.
Still, I wish that Midler gave herself a little more room for spontaneity and surprise — say, a leaving a wild card free space for an unexpected song or two. I’ve always longed to hear her sing “I’ll Be Seeing You” and it would be swell to hear early album favorites like “Superstar” and “Skylark” and “Drinking Again.” (Insert your own wished-for tune here.)
Midler’s a smart showbiz survivor, and at some point last year, it seems she relaxed into this role and this vast venue, and realized what this show is. “Showgirl” is not so much an expression of Midler’s ego, although that’s always been a comically outsize portion of her stage persona. More than just a generic headliner show, it’s an opportunity — a once in a lifetime opportunity for many — for her fans and admirers to spend time with her. To hear her truly one-of-a-kind voice. To feel that they’re in the room with her. That is what she’s done, and that is the triumph of “The Showgirl Must Go On.”
“Come back and see us,” a beaming Midler says to the on-its-feet audience at the end of the night. “We’ll be here forever.”
And you know what? With this show, she could be, and she should be.