It's taken me 35 years to finally get to see Bette Midler live in concert, and now I understand why Midler is, to fans and critics alike, simply divine.
Last Saturday night — with an audience that boasted Sarah Jessica Parker, Polly Bergen, Christine Ebersole and Veanne Cox — I had the chance to catch Midler's current concert tour, the lavishly and smoothly staged Kiss My Brass at the Meadowlands' Continental Arena in New Jersey. Onstage, Midler — who has never looked or sounded better — is a thrilling mix of singer, comedienne and social commentator. The multi-talented performer made a grand entrance, descending from the heavens on a merry-go-round rocking horse. She proceeded to belt the hell out of "Kiss My Brass" before launching into "Big Noise from Winnetka" and "Stuff Like That There," the latter a tune from her 1991 WWII film "For the Boys." Midler was also ably supported by her three newly minted Harlettes, Broadway's big-voiced Kyra Da Costa, Kamilah Martin and Nicolette Hart.
I was utterly impressed by Midler's musicianship during her rendition of the Johnny Mercer-Hoagy Carmichael standard "Skylark." Midler played off the melody line at the song's beginning and then offered a beautiful take on the classic tune about searching for true love.
Director Richard Jay-Alexander, who masterfully helmed the production, continues his string of diva hits with the Midler tour. Jay-Alexander, who will be shepherding Rosie O'Donnell's Find Me to the stage next season, also directed two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters in both her acclaimed Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall concert debuts and guided the one-and-only Barbra Streisand through her farewell concert. Here, the director has added some wonderful touches. I particularly liked his staging of one of Midler's signature tunes, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," which followed the aforementioned "Skylark." As she belted out the Andrews Sisters hit live, three split screens featured Midler — dressed in various outfits — performing the song on a seventies television special. Midler also poked fun at her recent, much-in-the-news television sitcom "Bette" with a humorous video featuring the star in Judge Judy's court. That led to a tongue-in-cheek version of "I'm Sorry" followed by a medley of the sitcom's theme song and her crowd favorite "(Ya Gotta Have) Friends." Highlights of the first half also included terrific takes on two Rosemary Clooney signature pieces, "Come On-A My House" and "Tenderly" (both have thankfully been preserved on Midler's newest CD); the moving "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today" from "Beaches"; a belty "When a Man Loves a Woman"; and the first-act finale, "Shiver Me Timbers."
The evening's second half began with a treat for Broadway fans. Returning to her familiar guise as mermaid/lounge singer Dolores DeLago, Midler offered a "Fishtails on Broadway" section featuring such theatre tunes as "Everything's Coming Up Roses" (well, actually, here it was "Everything's Coming Up Fishtails") as well as "Cabaret," "You'll Never Walk Alone," "All That Jazz" ("All That Shad"), "One," "Hello, Dolly!" ("Hello, Dolores!"), "Oklahoma!" and even Dreamgirls' "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going."
The Grammy winner remembered the late Mr. Rodgers with a poignant "I Like To Be Told" before launching into a beautiful original song — "September" — that paid tribute to the events of September 11.
"This was a hit during the last Bush war," Midler quipped before singing a particularly touching and thought-provoking "From a Distance." "Do You Want to Dance" preceded the show's finale, a full-voiced, joyous "Wind Beneath My Wings."
Midler returned for two songs from her Oscar-nominated turn in "The Rose," "Keep On Rocking" and Amanda McBroom's title tune. The latter brought the sold-out crowd to its feet. The 48-city Kiss My Brass tour — which also features notable choreography by Toni Basil — ends this weekend in Atlantic City. There are rumors, however, that the elaborate production will return later in the year to more cities and possibly Radio City Music Hall. Bette fans around the world also have reason to rejoice, as there is also talk of Kiss My Brass playing Europe, Australia and Asia. And, should the tour head your way, don't miss your chance to see Midler live. There really is no one like her on the concert circuit today. A true force of nature.
FOR THE RECORD: Rebecca Luker's "Leaving Home"
For a little more than a decade, Rebecca Luker has thrilled Broadway audiences with her soaring soprano in such musicals as The Phantom of the Opera, The Secret Garden, Show Boat, The Sound of Music, The Music Man and, most recently, in the revival of Maury Yeston’s Nine, where she delivered a ravishing rendition of "Unusual Way." On her second solo recording, "Leaving Home," Luker explores her lower register more fully than ever before while also offering listeners plenty of that glorious soprano.
While her first solo album focused on the works of Broadway composer Cole Porter, Luker’s new ps Classics release finds the singer-actress turning her attention to pop and folk songs by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, Carly Simon and Billy Joel. She begins her 14-track disc with Joni Mitchell’s "River," and her wide-ranging voice is a perfect match for Mitchell’s song of longing. Luker also scores with Janis Ian’s aching "Getting Over You" and has fun with another Joni Mitchell classic, "Chelsea Morning." Other highlights include Carly Simon’s "Boys in the Trees," Billy Joel’s "You’re My Home" and a duet with Alison Fraser on "Wick." Luker and Fraser’s voices blend beautifully on this tune from The Secret Garden.
Dedicated to the memory of the late composer Rusty Magee , Luker also offers a stirring version of Magee’s song of loss, "Coming Apart." The complete track listing for "Leaving Home" follows:
"River" (by Joni Mitchell)
"Getting Over You" (Janis Ian)
"Chelsea Morning" (Joni Mitchell)
"Boys in the Trees" (Carly Simon)
"Cherish the Child" (Christopher McGovern and Amy Powers, cut from their musical, Lizzie Borden)
"You're My Home" (Billy Joel)
"Ophelia" (Amanda McBroom, from the musical, Will's Women)
"Old Dog Tray" (Stephen Foster)
"Fine" (Bill Whitefield and Bill Castellino, from the musical, Crash Club)
"Morningtimes" (Christopher McGovern)
"Wick" (Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman, from the musical, The Secret Garden, with special guest Alison Fraser)
"Coming Apart" (Rusty Magee)
"Four Green Fields" (Thomas Makem)
"She's Leaving Home" (John Lennon and Paul McCartney)
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: Cast members from Gypsy — starring Bernadette Peters as Momma Rose — are now taking part in question-and-answer sessions following Wednesday night performances. The talkback sessions began this past Wednesday evening and will continue for the next few weeks. Speaking of the acclaimed revival, two original Annie stars recently lent a hand backstage at the Shubert Theatre. Marge Merklinghaus, who handles the animals (the production features a small pooch and a "little lamb") at Gypsy, was recently unavailable. Her daughter, Shelley Bruce, agreed to pitch in, and she was joined by her long-time friend Andrea McArdle. Ironically, the Gypsy animals are supplied by William Berloni, who found the original Sandy for McArdle's Annie years ago in a Connecticut pound. . . . Petula Clark, who played Norma Desmond in the London and the second U.S. national tour of Sunset Boulevard, will return to that role next month. Clark will play the faded silent-screen star in two concerts of the musical at the Royal Opera House in Cork. She will be joined by Aspects of Love's Michael Ball as the doomed screenwriter Joe Gillis. The concerts of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Don Black musical will be presented April 23 and 24 and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on Sunday, May 2 at 7 PM. Tickets for the Sunset Boulevard concert are priced at 35, 40 and 45 Euros and are available by calling 00353 21 427 0022. For more information about the Sunset Boulevard broadcast, visit www.bbc.co.uk. . . . Academy Award winner Julie Andrews, whose singing voice was damaged during a 1997 vocal operation, will sing in the upcoming sequel to "The Princess Diaries." Andrews will perform a new song entitled "Your Crowning Glory" in "Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement." Dawn Soler, the film's musical supervisor, told AP, "She's everything you want Julie Andrews to be; she's such a professional. She nailed the song on the first take. I looked around and I saw grips with tears in their eyes." "Your Crowning Glory" features lyrics by Lorraine Feather and music by Larry Grossman. About the song Feather said, "It's an old-fashioned song with classic-type lyrics." Grossman added, "It's written in just one octave, so it wouldn't be vocally demanding. . . I've worked with Julie, and I knew what she was capable of. This does not reflect that; it's more of a tranquil song. She told me it works beautifully." . . . Continuing its tradition of presenting Broadway musicals in a concert setting, the Hollywood Bowl will offer the award-winning Mame this summer. On Sunday, Aug. 1 the Hollywood Bowl will present the famed Jerry Herman musical about the free spirited Mame Dennis, her boozy friend Vera Charles and her young nephew, Patrick. Gordon Hunt will direct the one-night-only event featuring the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra under the direction of John Mauceri. Show time is 7:30 PM; casting has yet to be announced. The Hollywood Bowl is located at 2301 Highland Avenue in Hollywood, CA. Tickets for Mame are available by calling (323) 850-2000. Go to www.hollywoodbowl.org for more information. . . . Cleo Laine, who received a Tony Award nomination for her performance as Princess Puffer in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, returns to the New York cabaret scene next month. From April 9-11 and April 13-16, Laine will perform at Le Jazz Au Bar on East 58th Street. Laine's husband, famed jazz musician John Dankworth, will also join the singer for her engagement at the new jazz club, which opened for business in February. Le Jazz Au Bar is located in Manhattan at 41 East 58th Street. The new jazz space is the work of impresario Howard Stein, who owns the nightclub Au Bar, where the new jazz room is housed. There is a $50 cover charge for Laine's shows; call (212) 308-9455 for reservations. . . . Cabaret favorite Andrea Marcovicci will return to the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room next month for a reprise of her acclaimed Frank Loesser program. On April 18 (at 5 and 8:30 PM) and April 19 (at 8 PM), the witty chanteuse will offer her most recent cabaret act, "If I Were a Bell." The evenings will be recorded live for Marcovicci's upcoming solo CD. The recording marks the singer-actress' 11th (!) solo recording: Her other titles include "Marcovicci Sings Movies," "What Is Love?," "I'll Be Seeing You: Love Songs of WWII," "Just Kern," "Always, Irving Berlin," "Live from London," "Some Other Time," "Here, There and Everywhere" and the Maury Yeston song cycle, "December Songs." Cabaretgoers can expect to hear Marcovicci wrap her voice around such Loesser tunes as "Heart and Soul," "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," "Two Sleepy People," "Baby, It's Cold Outside," "On a Slow Boat to China," "Says My Heart," "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year," "They're Either Too Young or Too Old" and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" The Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel is located at 59 West 44th Street. There is a $50 cover charge as well as a minimum; for reservations, call (212) 419-9331. . . . And, finally, those lucky enough to attend the limited engagement of Barbara Cook's Broadway — March 19-April 18 — will get to hear the Tony Award winner perform songs from and reminisce about the Golden Years of Broadway. As of press time, song titles include "It's Not Where You Start," "Among My Yesterdays," "Wait 'Til You're Sixty-Five," "Wonderful Guy," "My White Knight," "Mister Snow," "Nobody Else But Me," "A Perfect Relationship," "Look What Happened to Mabel," "What'll I Do/Time Heals Everything," "The Gentleman Is a Dope," "His Face," "This Nearly Was Mine," "The Very Next Man," "Make the Man Love Me" and "The Party's Over" as well as medleys of tunes from She Loves Me and Show Boat. Tickets for Barbara Cook's Broadway are priced at $60 and are available by logging on to www.telecharge.com. Show times are March 19 at 8 PM, March 20 and 21 at 2 PM, March 26-28 at 8 PM, April 2 at 8 PM, April 3 and 4 at 2 PM, April 16 at 8 PM and April 17 and 18 at 2 PM.
Next week: A chat with Baby's Liz Callaway. Liz and Swing!'s Ann Hampton Callaway bring their newest sister-act to Feinstein's at the Regency beginning this Tuesday, March 23. They'll offer Relative Harmony — the follow-up to their acclaimed Sibling Revelry — through April 3. And, fear not, their "Big Medley" (with a few updates) is also part of the new show. Feinstein's at the Regency is located in Manhattan at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street; call (212) 339-4095 for reservations.
Betty Buckley in Concert:
Now through March 27 at the Cafe Carlyle in New York, NY
Liz Callaway in Concert:
March 23-April 3 in Relative Harmony in New York, NY
April 12-17 in Relative Harmony in Los Angeles, CA
April 23 with Jason Graae in Sutter Creek, CA
April 24-25 with Jason Graae in San Rafael, CA
May 1 in Sibling Revelry in Orono, ME
May 8 in Sibling Revelry in Purchase, NY
Patti LuPone in Concert:
March 17-21 at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT
March 29-April 1 at Feinstein's at the Cinegrill in Hollywood, CA
April 3 at the Chattanooga Convention Center in Chattanooga, TN
April 6-24 at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York, NY
May 5-8 in Candide with the NY Philharmonic in New York, NY
Louise Pitre in Concert:
November 4 at the Brock Centre for the Arts in St. Catherines, ON
November 5 at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts in Oakville, ON
November 6 at the Dr. J.M. Ennis Auditorium in Welland, ON
November 11 at the Heritage Theatre in Brampton, ON
November 12 at the Imperial Oil Centre in Sarnia, ON
November 17 at the Markham Theatre in Markham, ON
November 20 at the Stockey Centre in Parry Sound, ON
November 21 at The Living Arts Centre in Mississauga, ON
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching!