Bette Midler opens Las Vegas show

February 19, 2008 5:48:21 PM PST
Bette Midler unfurls the big feather boa Wednesday in her Las Vegas show, "The Showgirl Must Go On," a sassy musical reprise of the best hits and worst jokes from her decades in show biz.

The glitzy production, backed by a 13-piece orchestra and 22 rhinestone-studded showgirls, opens with a computer-animated sequence of a whirlwind barreling down the Las Vegas Strip. Some 90 minutes later it ends with Midler towering high above stage on a platform and singing her Grammy-winning "Wind Beneath My Wings."

In between, a boisterous Midler intersperses her songs with plenty of gutter-ball humor, as seen during a full dress rehearsal before 4,300 invited guests Monday night at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace.

Midler entered the stage in a sparkly silver pant suit atop a burro before breaking into a classic Las Vegas-style showgirl number.

Tired and panting afterward, she kept the crowd laughing.

"Oh my God, I'm exhausted," she said in a mock collapse.

"See, that's what happens when you do your own singing."

Wednesday's grand opening is the start of a two-and-a-half year, 200-show engagement at the stage once filled by Celine Dion, before she embarked on a worldwide tour for her album, "Taking Chances."

It marks the 62-year-old Midler's first major live performance run since her "Kiss My Brass" tour in Australia in 2005.

Midler worked with gusto, recreating such hits as the song that launched her career, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," from 1973, and many others: "Do You Want to Dance?" (1972), "From a Distance" (1990) and even an upbeat bola-swinging version of "My Way."

She frequently joked at the size of the stage, at one point equating a walk to stage right to moving into another ZIP code.

"If I have to cross this stage one more time, I'll have a stroke," she said.

Midler had a half-dozen costume changes and broke out many of the signature characters from over the years, such as Dolores DeLago, the singing mermaid on a wheelchair, and the crass joke-teller in a nightgown, Soph. She also poked fun at today's troubled young celebrities, including Britney Spears and Spears' pregnant teenage sister, Jamie Lynn before declaring herself the front-runner as a trashy party girl.

Along with the "Caesars Salad Girls" roster of dancers ("each and every one a tomato"), Midler got backup singing from three recent graduates of a famed school, for which she was pleased to spell the acronym, the Staggering Harlette Institute of Technology.

Various forms of the Harlettes have long been back up singers for the Divine Miss M, who got her start in show business in the 1966 movie epic "Hawaii." She later landed on Broadway in "Fidler on the Roof" and in the 1970s, thrilled the gay clientele at New York's Continental Baths with her trashy sass and Barry Manilow on piano. She went on to win four Grammys, an Emmy and star in movies such as "Beaches," "Ruthless People" and "The Stepford Wives."

The $95 million Colosseum was custom-made for Dion's run, which began in March 2003, played to nearly 3 million fans and grossed more than $400 million over five years. For Midler, the stage was shortened and its rake, or incline toward the audience, was flattened, allowing more than 100 seats to be added, at a cost of $5 million.

Nearly $20 million was spent on the production, and more than that was guaranteed for Midler herself, said John Meglen, the president of Concerts West, an AEG Live company that books talent for Caesars. Midler shares the Colosseum with Elton John on different nights and then with Cher, starting May 6.

Tickets, ranging from $95-$250 for Midler's first run of 19 shows, are more than 90 percent sold through mid-March, Meglen said, and are available through Ticketmaster. She performs five nights a week.

"She was right, we're paying her a lot of money. But you know, Bette's worth it," he said.