- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

Dressed in a snazzy satin sailor suit and astride a spirited carousel steed descending swiftly from the rafters, Bette Midler swooped into the MCI Center this Friday past to the whoops and cheers of her adoring fans.

The Caps and the Wizards could only hope for such a crowd. And the Divine Miss M gave ‘em what they came for —an appealing, raucous, and very New York fusion of vaudeville shtick, corny jokes, and an eclectic song list ranging from sentimental ‘50s ballads to golden Motown classics.

Miss Midler is about halfway through her “Kiss My Brass” national tour, which began in Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum on Jan. 3. The extravaganza includes all the outrageous kitsch and campy jokes that have made her famous since her bathhouse days in New York. With a gaudy set modeled on the fading boardwalks of New York and New Jersey, her show is a Coney Island of the mind, and it touches all the right buttons for those of a certain age — and for those who wish they were.

Miss Midler’s in-your-face comedy routines and terrific song delivery lit up an otherwise cold and chilly Washington weekend. Few can deliver the guts of a song with her power and conviction. She’s the working-class girl next door who can express your emotions better than you can. With the assistance of the latest incarnation of her backup singers, The Harlettes, and a hot live band of top jazz and rock musicians, including a particularly mean brass section, she filled MCI’s cavernous space with a selection of songs ranging from Rosemary Clooney’s “Hey, There” to a mind-blowing rendition of the old Percy Sledge classic “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

Interspersed with the musical numbers were humorous monologues and musical-comedy skits, including a video trial before Judge Judy and a great Broadway mermaid revue that opened the second half of the show.

Her best comic bit of the evening was her colorful put-down of slutty pop tarts Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. An indignant Miss Midler denounced the girl singers’ tawdry, let-it-all-hang-out costuming as trash. But she was most offended that she hadn’t even been sent a thank-you note, complaining, “Hey, I opened the door to trash.” She also acknowledged her prominent homosexual fan base by greeting her friends from the District’s “Bouffant Circle.”

Unfortunately, political trash was also in abundance early in the show’s first stanza, all of it aimed at the Bushies. Miss Midler lit into them all, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and the president himself with the kind of spluttering, righteous fury that only a lifelong leftist can muster.

Low blows in the second half were mostly reserved for “poor, fat, stupid, hypocritical, drug-addicted” Rush Limbaugh — remarks that seemed to have been cribbed from one of Al Franken’s or Michael Moore’s post-Marxist screeds. So much for liberal compassion.

All in all, you can see why Miss Midler packs them in. Her show, while extravagant and eccentric, never descends to the tasteless vulgarity of a Michael Jackson. She knows exactly where to plant a song and how to pitch it. Her energy and moves are still terrific, even as she loudly complains of post-menopausal angst. And she knows exactly who her audience is and genuinely loves to give them what they want, an art that many of today’s entertainers seem to have forgotten.

It would have been nice, however, if her political humor — particularly post-September 11 — had been a bit more balanced, a bit more nuanced in this grudgingly bipartisan town. But in today’s entertainment industry, which ironically boasts of more wealthy leftists than any community on this planet, that’s probably too much to ask.

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