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Still Divine

Miss M. makes the night come alive, with lots more sugar on top than today's pop tarts.

By GINA VIVINETTO, Times Pop Music Critic
Published March 3, 2004

TAMPA - Bette Midler calls it like she sees it, and since the outspoken superstar hasn't hit the road in four years, Midler, 58, had plenty to say Tuesday at the St. Pete Times Forum. The outrageous pioneer in pop music got her start entertaining in the gay bath houses in New York with an edgy nightclub act that combined bawdy comedy and sublime singing.

Midler proved to 12,223 fans that although she has succeeded in the mainstream with hit films like The First Wives Club and Beaches, she has lost none of her edge. Midler arrived onstage atop a carousel pony suspended from the ceiling. She wore navy pants and a sailor shirt, her hair a cascade of curls that would have Shirley Temple seething in envy. That was the first of many fabulous costumes that were only upstaged by elaborate sets that hinted of Coney Island circa the early 1900s.

Midler brought along an enormous band with plenty of horns, which added punch to the the tour's theme and the opening number: Kiss My Brass.

For more than two hours, divided into two energy-packed sets, Midler dazzled the crowd, reminding fans that she was one of the first to be trampy onstage, citing today's pop tarts including Christina Aguilera and Janet Jackson.

"I opened the door for trashy singers ...," Midler said. "They owe me big time!"

Midler is modest; she has chops where today's singers have only body parts. The diminutive star sang with a voice rich and supple, choosing from some of Broadway's finest musicals - Chicago, Cabaret, Gypsy - as well as a zippy rendition of the Andrews Sisters' Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. Midler dipped into nostalgic tunes from another era with songs from her Grammy-nominated Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook.

Midler also danced, spinning and sashaying with her three backing singer-dancers, spinning on a dime as only stars of a certain caliber can do. Old school stars. Stars who know how to work a crowd.

Midler, in between songs, was robust with comedic bits as she skewered celebrities and politicians.

Smartly, Midler localized her humor:

"Tampa - where Bubba the Love Sponge has finally been hung out to dry!"

On the gay marriage frenzy: "I knew something would have to replace disco, but I never knew it would be matrimony. Jeb Bush is so nervous, he had to stop fixing the next election!"

Did Midler take a breath? Rarely. This is a woman filled with pep, and boy, does she earn her paycheck. Except when Midler's onstage, she doesn't make it seem like work, a rare treat for an audience these days. Midler provides good old-fashioned entertainment, equal parts sugar and sass.

With Midler you get plenty of nasty jokes, double entendres and F-words, sure, but when bookended by tender ballads such as The Rose; Wind Beneath My Wings; I Think It's Gonna Rain Today, written by the incomparable Randy Newman; and Shiver Me Timbers by Tom Waits, it makes for a night like no other, a night only Midler can deliver convincingly.

- To contact Gina Vivinetto, e-mail gina@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 3, 2004, 01:45:07]

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