Bette Midler’s career has long thrived on incongruities: tiny woman, big voice; heartfelt balladeer, bawdy vaudevilian; Bathhouse Betty, mainstream movie star; dramatic actress, camp goddess. Now that she’s about six months away from hitting 70, there’s another dichotomy to consider: senior citizen, ageless phenom.
Because last night at the Amalie Arena, in only the third stop of her Divine Intervention tour — her first tour in 10 years — the sass, the sashay, the big sound and the unabashed emotion were all in such top form that you couldn’t help but marvel:
This woman’s how old?
She didn’t shy away from the subject of age — her own, or that of the audience. Asking how many people in the mostly middle-aged and older crowd of 9,282 had driven to the concert, she feigned surprise at the number of hands and cracked, “It’s good to know so many of my fans can still drive at night.” After a rapidfire medley of ’60s girl group hits like “Tell Him” and “Da Doo Ron Ron,” in which she kept up nicely with her three vigorously shimmying back-up singers, the Staggering Harlettes, she called for an oxygen tank and let herself get wheeled around in a lip-shaped sofa while excoriating social media, dick pics and the Kardashians.
The breathlessness did seem real in spots, especially after the opening number. Following a chaotic video of a purple tornedo wreaking havoc, Midler appeared, perched regally amidst the wreckage, then roared through the tour's eponymous anthem with what appeared to be a touch of over-anxiety. (She’d kept the audience waiting 45 minutes beyond the stated 8 p.m. start time, which some of her older fans were vocally unhappy about — “I gotta work tomorrow, it’s gonna be time to go to bed,” groused a woman behind me — so maybe she was working a little too hard to win them back.)
But as the show progressed, the expressions of exhaustion seemed more theatrical than actual. Her peachy-pink mini-frock and blonde bob might have read mother of the bride (except for those amazing gams), but her energy is non-stop. She loves to be on stage, and — in a nearly two-hour show backed by a big band, including a rocking, dancing horn section — her exhilaration was contagious.
“I have resurrected more oldies than Viagra,” she joked at one point after a rendition of the Rosemary Clooney classic “Tenderly.” (Midler had an ear for the Great American Songbook long before, say, Rod Stewart.) The show also makes sure to revive oldies but goodies from her touring and movie personae. The wheelchair-bound mermaid Dolores del Lago, though retired from the live act, got a funny “In Memoriam” video à la the Oscars (or the Oysters, or the Oyscers, or some such bad pun in the voiceover). Winifred the witch from Hocus Pocus made a splashy if brief appearance (complete with a giant flame-colored wig that recalled the unfortunate headgear her HP co-star, Sarah Jessica Parker, wore to the Met Costume Gala) to sing a disco-fied “I Put a Spell On You.” Sophie was back, too. Midler’s affection for the brash vaudeville comedienne Sophie Tucker is long-established, and for this tour “Soph” delivers the old jokes — hoary but still hilarious — dressed as a fabulously feathered chicken. (Because it wouldn’t be a Divine Miss M production without some divinely outrageous costumery.)
And of course there were the Big Hits from the ’80s and early ’90s, all saved for the final act and encores. What’s remarkable about these inevitable reprises is how fresh Midler is still able to keep them. Her conversational phrasing and intimate connection with the lyrics, particularly in “The Rose” and “Wind Beneath My Wings,” sent the audience leaping to its feet. And “Stay with Me,” the ragged plea that probably sealed her Oscar nomination for The Rose, was searing.
But what will stay with me was an almost daringly somber section in the middle of the show when Midler sang, in succession, Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” (“Everybody knows the fight was fixed/ The poor stay poor, the rich get rich”) and Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” (with its sardonic refrain, “Human kindness is overflowing”). Everybody knows Midler’s politics, as exemplifed by jokes like the one she made about her Harlettes, whom she claims were fact-checkers hired away from Fox News: “No one noticed they were gone.” But in these two numbers — bitter sentiments sung with a surpassing sweetness — Midler’s humanity shone with quiet conviction. No brass, no sass, just deeply felt truths.
For many reasons — her defiance of age, her liberal bona fides, her unstoppable humor, her sheer talent — I suspect that, when she sang that familiar and admittedly kind of mawkish lyric, “Did I ever tell you you’re my hero?” from “Wind Beneath My Wings,” I wasn’t the only one thinking the hero was up there on stage.