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The Showgirl moves on

Reflecting on Bette Midler’s exultant Vegas finale

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Bette Midler appears onstage in her final performance of The Showgirl Must Go On in The Colosseum at Caesars Palace on Jan. 31, 2010.
Photo: Erik Kabik/Retna/www.erikkabikphoto.com

As Bette Midler folded up her feathered fans—after singing the first verse of “Wind Beneath My Wings” to her orchestra, the next to “4,500 of my closest friends”—it felt like something more than a Vegas show was ending.

Midler began her two-year run as a headliner at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in February of 2008—just as the toughest two years this town has seen were dawning. And as she leaves Las Vegas, it seems like a moment of star magnitude, of showbiz spectacle, of Destination Entertainment, is going with her.

Bette Midler's Farewell Performance

“I survived!” Midler crowed, beaming as she made her Big Entrance atop a tower of Louis Vuitton luggage on Sunday night. She not only survived but thrived: At 64, she somehow looks and sounds even better than she did when she got here. (Must be that desert air.) And the show ended on a high note--I’ve seen The Showgirl Must Go On four times since it opened, and Midler and her crew continually revised, streamlined and improved it right up to Sunday’s last bow. Filled with exultant emotion and off-the-script surprises—including drop-bys from Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, Marie Osmond, Gladys Knight and Celine Dion (via ginormous video)—her victory lap was probably unbeatable.

The unmistakable Bruce Vilanch was in the will-call line ahead of me—he’s recognizable anywhere, but in a Bette Midler ticket line, he is pretty much an A-list, and was politely signing programs and posing for pictures. Vilanch, who has written jokes for Midler for years, said he and her other writers were going to shout wisecracks at her throughout the night, and noted that he wouldn’t be at all surprised if she re-upped in Vegas in the foreseeable future, perhaps at a smaller venue, where she could be as spontaneous as she was on her finale. (Vilanch also added that he recently sat with Paula Abdul on a plane, and that she had been in negotiations about popping into Peepshow. We'll see.)

On the final night of a show, all bets are off, and anything goes—everyone, especially the star, ready to let loose. Midler seemed energized and emotional, her hair now a blonde puff of curls that matched that of her bandleader and keyboard player Bette Sussman. She acknowledged the "strange and pulverizing times” of the past couple of years. She made “Twatter” jokes. She sang “The Rose,” warning the audience that the we could sing along, “in the sweetest kumbaya moment: the Jews, the Christians, the gays”—but only after the first verse, which was reserved for her alone. She sang “Friends,” a welcome favorite from her 1972 debut album.

“Last December, I was invited to sing for the Queen of England,” Midler said. “I felt very well prepared, because I’ve been singing for queens all my life. The Queen likes the Beatles—who knew?” Midler said, and in place of John Prine’s poignant ballad “Hello In There,” she introduced ukemaster Shimabukuro, who accompanied her on a lovely “In My Life,” then conquered the Colosseum with a solo “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

After a saltier-than-usual string of dirty jokes told by Midler in the character of ancient showgirl Soph, Marie Osmond crossed the street after her show at the Flamingo and shared “the Mormon F-word”: “Fifty.”

Midler famously played out Johnny Carson, singing “One For My Baby (and One More For the Road)” on the Tonight Show. And on Sunday she had her own tearful Carson moment, when Gladys Knight came out at the 11th hour to serenade her with “The Way We Were.”

After more than two hours, Midler graciously thanked the Colosseum’s cast and crew and brought them all onstage—the Colosseum’s ushers gave Midler a “perfect attendance” award. She faked out the audience by encoring with “My Heart Will Go On” —interrupted by a video tribute from Celine Dion—before singing, inevitably, about wind and wings and unsung heroes.

Midler’s arrival in Las Vegas felt personally significant to me. I was a 14-year-old gay kid in the pre-Internet suburbs when I first heard the siren call of Midler’s sighing, whispering, knowing, campy, retro-celebrating “Do You Want To Dance?” on the AM radio, and somehow I knew I was a member of a secret club. When I was agonizing about whether to take a job writing about entertainment in Las Vegas, of all places, the news that Midler was coming helped make my decision easier. Her show was the first big review I wrote for my new newspaper, the Las Vegas Sun.

I, for one, will miss her. And I can’t help but wonder what’s next: for Midler, for me, for Las Vegas.

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