Bette Midler as Delores De Lago
Bette Midler as Delores De Lago
It's fascinating to compare the careers of Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand, since they might well have been expected to follow similar paths but most certainly did not. Both performers began to make a name for themselves in New York in the '60s: Streisand sang mostly for gay men in small clubs in Greenwich Village, Midler sang specifically for gay men in, shall we say, other venues. Both appeared on Broadway: Streisand was featured in I Can Get It For You Wholesale and starred in Funny Girl, Midler played Tzeitel during the marathon run of Fiddler on the Roof. Both had succcess in recordings and films: Midler's major, Streisand's phenomenal.

Ah, but there the similarities end. Though Streisand virtually ceased performing before live audiences as soon as she became a film star, Midler has continued to appear regularly in concert venues. And though Streisand came across as cool, remote, and humorless when she finally did deign to return to live concerts (at ridiculously inflated ticket prices), Midler's shows have always been warm, wacky love-fests. Her current show at Radio City Music Hall, Bette Midler: Kiss My Brass, fits that description perfectly.

According to some reports, this engagement has not been selling well, probably due mostly to the fact that Midler did the same show in cavernous Madison Square Garden earlier this year. But the Music Hall looked pretty full last night, and it can be said with confidence that every paying customer got much more than his or her money's worth. With the background of a bright, colorful set meant to represent Coney Island at the end of the 19th century, Bette and her Harlettes -- and her terrific band -- offered the kind of entertainment that must be seen to be believed.

Bette and company opened with the show's title song, and then the quips began -- fast, furious, and irreverent. (For example: "My story has more twists and turns than Billy Joel on a country road.") In a generous two-hour program, the star seemed to leave none of her hits unsung; she did an equally amazing job with the up-tempo rousers ("Stuff Like That There," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy), the thrillingly belted show-stoppers ("When a Man Loves a Woman"), and the ballads ("Skylark," "From a Distance," "Wind Beneath My Wings.") The evening also encompassed touching tributes to Mister Rogers and Rosemary Clooney. (If you don't already own Midler's album of covers of that great singer's greatest hits, get it!)

Kiss My Brass contains a number of side-splitting "Soph" jokes, based on the style of Sophie Tucker but far more blue than anything that would ever have come out of that legend's mouth on stage. There's also a dash of political humor in the proceedings, and I'm sure I don't have to tell you who the targets are. But, for many in the audience, the highlight of the show was the lengthy yet consistently hilarious sequence that opened the second half: Charting the ascension to Broadway stardom of Delores De Lago, Midler's zany mermaid character, it included performances of more than a dozen musical theater standards -- from "Everything's Coming Up Roses" to "You'll Never Walk Alone" to "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" -- with hysterically funny parody lyrics.

The finale, a group sing-a-long to "The Rose," ended the evening on a sweet, heartfelt note. Only a performer as brilliantly versatile as Bette Midler could make such a choice seem exactly right -- moving rather than cloying, sincere rather than manipulative. Kiss My Brass continues at Radio City Music Hall through Sunday, and it's not to be missed.