BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Oct 22, 2004
There are singers, and then there is Bette Midler. She's that evaporating breed of entertainer, the rare performer capable not only of blowing the roof off a venue with a hefty set of pipes, but one who cracks smart jokes at whiplash speed, hoofs alongside her dancers and makes a crowd feel as if she still cares - even after 30-plus years in the biz.
Last night's near-capacity Coliseum audience continually lavished its own love on Midler, even providing a surprisingly high volume of agreeable whoops and hollers at her many hilarious President Bush barbs.
Midler also went out of her way - as she's done all tour - to localize her comments. That meant that aside from shoutouts to Windsor Farms and Oregon Hill ("Show me your mullets!") came a well-placed reference to the recent flooding in Shockoe Bottom.
Richmond Coliseum last night
"We're staying downtown and my hotel room is still damp," Midler quipped. "It's the first time I've seen sandbags in my bathroom!"
And then, "I was hoping Sa'ad El-Amin could come tonight," Midler said of the incarcerated former city councilman, "but he told me he was locked into other plans. The good news is that he and Martha Stewart are getting along faaaabulously."
Just because Midler is sharper and funnier than most professional stand-up comedians didn't mean she shirked her primary responsibility onstage - singing. A zippy five-piece horn section kick-started the show with "Kiss My Brass" - also the name of her tour, now on its second mega-successful leg - and "Big Noise From Winnetka."
Watching Midler perform was as exhilarating as it was exhausting. The woman never stopped for air as she frantically paced from one side of the stage to the other, like Joe Torre looking for the remains of the Yankees season.
Her mop of blond, Shirley Temple curls sprung on her shoulders as she and her three fantastic backup singers, those saucy Harlettes, bopped through "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" across a stage decorated to replicate early Coney Island.
Most impressive about Midler was her ability to segue from ribald jokes about Viagra and the White House to soulful ballads such as Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" or Rosemary Clooney's "Hey There."
By scrunching her eyes shut and emitting deep breaths between well-phrased lyrics, Midler suggested she was very much in the moment, not mentally planning her upcoming week off, as many stars on tour do.
Even later ballads "From a Distance" and "Wind Beneath My Wings," such soggy Hallmark pap on record, were injected with new beauty under Midler's live command.
As any longtime Midler fan knows, the highlights of her act come with two beloved characters - Sophie Tucker, that muumuu-wearing, dirty-joke-spewing yenta, and Delores DeLago "The Toast of Chicago," otherwise known as the wacky mermaid in a motorized wheelchair.
Both made ample appearances last night - a bit too long in the case of DeLago and her punny Broadway medley and fish jokes - but who but the iciest of heart couldn't hoot at the sight of Midler flopping and dancing around in a mermaid tail?
It's more than merely humorous that Midler began the 2-hour show by proclaiming "I'm fabulous! Don't I look it?" because she does. Look fabulous, that is. She'll turn 59 in December, and despite injuring her back during a show a couple of weeks ago and wearing tape around the arch of her left foot last night, Midler is a lean bundle of feistiness and energy.
Thank the entertainment gods that Midler says she's not retiring anytime soon. The world could use some more of her candid sass.