How far can you get on overkill? All the way to Hollywood and the Majestic Theater on Broadway if you're Bette Midler, who opened her latest Broadway run at the Majestic last night, hot on the heels of her screen debut in "The Rose." Like Delores Del Lago, the Toast of Chicago, who makes an appearance near the end of the first act, Miss Midler has lots of lungpower and an underwhelming amount of taste. Unlike Miss Del Lago (who's essentially Miss Midler spoofing herself), the real Miss M. also has talent.
It's not always easy to determine just where the talent lies. As a comedienne she's appealingly boisterous and bawdy but by no means extraordinary. She can sing - her new song reveals some hitherto unsuspected vocal subtleties - but she still tends to reduce everything she gets her hands on to showbiz tinsel. That's a showbiz tradition, of course, but Miss Midler doesn't confine her search for material to traditional showbiz sources. "Bette! Divine Madness," which is the official title of the show, finds her singing everything from the updated swing numbers that initially made her famous to ersatz gospel/funk to overwrought rock to a James Taylor ballad. The show-stopper is a medley of "You Can't Always Get What You Want," by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and "I Shall Be Released," by Richard Manuel of the Band and Bob Dylan. These are semi-sacred rock anthems, and reducing them to glittery pazazz would seem to be a kind of sacrilege.
There's an implicit message here. Miss Midler seems to be saying that everything in pop culture, including songs and idioms that are in some sense spiritual, are essentially trash. In taking this position she's alligning herself with certain new-wave rockers, who see the music as a pursuit that's fun but frivolous. As usual, her reading of the popular mood is up-to-date; one wonders whose idea it was for several of the band members to dress like new-wave types, in black shirts and skinny ties.
But there's also an explicit message at the very end of the show, which finds Miss Midler combining the soul ballad "When a Man Loves a Woman" with quotes from two other soul classics, "It's a Man's World" and "A Change Is Gonna Come." The message is that "change is gonna come in this man's world," and since Miss Midler only recently freed herself of her male manager and began managing herself, a fact to which she alludes early in the show, her intent could hardly be clearer. This is the heart of Miss Midler's talent; she's consistently been able to offer evenings of pure entertainment while suggesting that something more meaningful might be taking place.
Whether this final stab at relevance really means anything, coming as it does after two hours of fast-paced, campy silliness, is another matter. Miss Midler is such a pro at faking emotions that it's difficult for this listener, at least, to catch much feeling from her singing, even when she seems to mean it. Ultimately, the show's implicit message - pop culture as trash - is its dominant message. It sparkles to hide its emptiness.
Some of the show's sparkle, though, invites unrestrained admiration. Chipmonck has outdone himself with his lighting designs. And Shabba-Doo, the dancer who used to be on television's "Soul Train," brings more style and elegance to the stage than Miss Midler and her sweet-sounding but all too anonymous Staggering Harlettes put together.