“She’s so little and sparkly … I want her as a key chain!” Bette Midler’s Divine Intervention Tour at The Palace of Auburn Hills

Key chain Bette

Key chain Bette

She’s so little and sparkly … I want her as a key chain!” So commented my very witty pal and fellow Leadership A2Y (Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti) classmate Naomi Fink on one of the many photos I feverishly posted on Facebook while watching the Divine Miss M (Midler, that is) perform at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

Keep in mind, we were under strict instructions not to take photos, so what you see here is ill-gotten gain. I’m not sure how or why artists in this day and age even try to prevent images from being captured and shared.

Folks like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga even encourage the practice, likely realizing that it provides fabulous, cheap, immediate marketing … but I digress.

Roy and Heidi

Roy and Heidi

I was accompanied at the show by another wonderful A2Y colleague Heidi Fisher, who prepared for her impending audience with Queen Bette by listening to two days worth of her classic tunes on Pandora. Now that’s dedication.

Needless to say, we loved the moving, funny, ribald, political, sparkling spectacle that is Bette Midler’s Divine Intervention tour.

Both of us were likely in a sentimental mood, having just driven from Ann Arbor where we had spent our final day together as a leadership class.

The balance of the day, after receiving our certificates of merit, was occupied by a last blast scavenger hunt (cleverly designed by another classmate Peg Windsor and program director Barb Davenport): we met with as many different Ann Arbor business people and creative types as we could cram before we waved goodbye (or perhaps just “see you later”) to our beloved classmates and program.

So we were pretty spent before we even got in the door for Bette.

Leadership A2YA2Y class

We turned that frown upside down

We turned that frown upside down

Fortunately, we fit right in – as Midler joked in her opening monologue: “So glad to see my fans can still drive at night.” Indeed, it was that most blessedly rare of large-venue concert experiences where a respectful audience sat the whole time.

Ok by me. And, not unexpectedly for the spirit of the crowd and our state-of-mind, we made some new friends in our row. A schoolteacher from Grand Rapids and her East Lansing mom. And a man who seemed really sour about being there, until Heidi took a selfie with him. See, Bette, social media does make the world go ’round.

Oh, right, the concert? It was an old-school hoot, dressed up with the latest in projection technology and a dash of Midler’s own trademark pyrotechnic raunch.

Divine Intervention stage

Divine Intervention stage

The show opened with a quick animation, highlighting a cause famously near and dear to Midler’s heart: the environment and how deeply we have effed things up.

Good for her. I don’t think I can stand to hear one more local yokel/short-sighted fool who makes their living destroying the planet say, “Why don’t you people mind your own business? What I do in my town/state/whatever is my business.”

It is our business because we share this resource; we eat your crops the world over; we breathe the same air; we drink the same water. Consequently, I was thrilled to see Midler lead with such a powerful and sobering message.

Care ... please

Care … please

In her inimitable style, she then launched right into a cheeky medley of “Divine Intervention” and “I Look Good” amidst the detritus of a disposable society – giant size Coke cans, burning tires, and other debris – all with that impish smile and twinkle in her eye. Yes!

Polluters, agribusiness, and big manufacturing weren’t Midler’s only targets through the evening, though.

With a wry touch, she took shots at Vladimir Putin, the Kardashians, Fox News, Dick Cheney, and even Caitlyn Jenner – and her wizened audience ate it all up with glee.

She reserved her sharpest barbs for social media in a tart skit about how we can’t live in the moment without documenting every moment, as she was wheeled too and fro reclining on a hot pink sofa shaped like a pair of lips. Touche, Ms. M.

Hocus Pocus

Hocus Pocus

She hit all the expected musical high points with a verve that belied her long history in the entertainment industry: “Beast of Burden,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Do You Wanna Dance.” You can tell Midler lives to be in front of an audience and her energy positively crackles. She also incorporated numbers from her latest album It’s the Girls, a salute to decades of so-called “girl groups” in pop music, the best of all being her poignant take on TLC’s cautionary “Waterfalls.”

She offered a fetching and frisky “I Put a Spell on You,” bewigged as her saucy witch character from Disney’s Hocus Pocus, and, in the show’s strongest segment “Bird in the Hand,” channeled her idol Sophie Tucker for a machine gunned sequence of the kind of filthy jokes twelve-year-old boys find hysterical. Since she was dressed for the number as if Mae West had made an X-rated appeared on Sesame Street, it was utterly delightful.

Yes, the high-schmaltz trinity of “The Rose,” “From a Distance,” and “Wind Beneath My Wings” rounded out the evening.

Bird in the Hand

Bird in the Hand

I had a grandmother who was just too enamored of those tunes, in part due to some meddling family members who thought it fun to use the lyrics in rather passive aggressive fashion, so hearing any one or all of them always puts me on edge. (Not Midler’s fault obviously and apropos of nothing for this overview.)

I offer that context, though, to note that hearing Midler sing these signature tunes live redeemed them for this fan. In light of her passion for this planet and for all of us on it and in keeping with her parting wish for us to “be kind,” these ballads now make all the sense in the world to me.

I will add that the jarring juxtaposition of these saccharine hits against her “Last of the Red Hot Mamas” burlesque persona has always greatly amused me, and, in that sense, they are a sweet aperitif on her storied career.

DetroitIn closing, she gave Detroit a glowing review, donning an “I [Heart] Detroit” t-shirt for the encore. She, the mistress of reclamation who joked earlier “I never get rid of anything … they say I put the whore in hoarding,” crowed about the reinvention of the Motor City and of its spirit of reusing and celebrating all that has come before.

Be KindShe had visited Shinola (the celebrated watchmaker here) and took a tour of all the development along Woodward Avenue. She was breathlessly effusive, urging us to “keep it up” and to keep taking care of this city and each other. Will do, Ms. M. Will do.

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UrinetownOn another note …

The Penny Seats summer season is about to launch, with not just one but two shows at Ann Arbor’s West Park. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged] runs July 9-25 and Urinetown the Musical (that’s the one I’m in!) runs July 30 to August 15. Tickets are available at http://www.pennyseats.org, and we’ve gotten some great coverage already…

  • BroadwayWorldhere
  • Encore Michiganhere
  • Talk of the Townhere
  • Legal News – here

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Fa …. a long, long way to run: The Sound of Music Live! (2013 NBC event)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A lot of ink (and, one might argue, blood) has been spilled in the intervening days since The Sound of Music Live! starring country/pop superstar and American Idol Carrie Underwood reaffirmed NBC as a destination for “Must See TV.”

It’s taken me a bit of time (for once) to digest all of my thoughts – less about the show and more about the absurd level of snotty, glib, social-media fueled schadenfreude it seemed to generate.

Just when I thought this telecast (which I enjoyed by the way – more on that in a moment) would be another casualty of America’s silly “culture wars,” along came news that it was one of the most highly viewed shows in recent memory.

The chief driver of controversy and ratings? Ms. Underwood herself, who somehow has become as big a cultural lightning rod as my beloved Miley.

Seriously, watching my Facebook feed Thursday night, I found it fascinating that so many of my “Red State” friends, for whom the Wal-Mart sponsored production’s selection of Underwood seemed targeted, dug in their heels and proclaimed they didn’t like “different” and “it wasn’t like the movie” and “how dare they replace Julie Andrews” (whom I should add herself replaced Mary Martin from the stage show). Conversely, my “Blue State” friends all saw this as some Tea Party conspiracy to send Broadway to the Dark Ages and “bring Hee-Haw to high culture.” (And, yeah, they also didn’t like that is wasn’t Julie Andrews. There goes Underwood, finally bringing this country together again!)

Really? Really, folks? Just unclench and enjoy that someone is trying something new –  ironic, I know, given that this particular show is a pretty musty, overdone piece of musical theatre malarkey, but just go with me here.

I applaud producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for attempting – and succeeding – at the herculean task of getting a three hour, live musical performed, mostly without a hitch, on prime time television to blockbuster viewership. Last time that happened? Fifty years ago with another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical – Cinderella – which I might also add committed the “sacrilege” of casting a “hot young thing” in place of another actress who had originated the role (albeit in an earlier TV version). Guess who? Yup, Julie Andrews was “replaced” by Lesley Ann Warren, who was not only a bit dodgy as an actress but not that remarkable a vocalist either.

Zadan and Meron have pretty much led the charge over the past twenty years bringing the American musical into the broader popular consciousness of film and TV. And, yes, one of their gimmicks is creative and unconventional casting that gets them sponsorships, studio green lights, and viewership. Vanessa Williams and Jason Alexander and Chynna Phillips in Bye Bye Birdie. Kathy Bates in Annie. Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston in Cinderella. Bette Midler and Cynthia Gibb in Gypsy. Richard Gere and Renee Zellwegger and John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Oscar-winning Chicago. And, yes, John Travolta (and Michelle Pfeiffer) in Hairspray. (NOTE: many of these folks were not necessarily considered musical stars before these productions, but are now.) Would these productions have been artistically “better” with Broadway vets in those roles? Probably. Would these films have gotten made, let alone watched and enjoyed by millions, without these stars? Nope.

And, furthermore, Audrey Hepburn was cast over Andrews in My Fair Lady, the Hollywood penance for this decision in turn landing Andrews Mary Poppins and, I suspect, Sound of Music, which had been written for Broadway for Mary Martin (yes, JR Ewing’s mom who made a name among American viewers for playing a boy – Peter Pan). And should Barbra Streisand have played the lead in the film Hello Dolly! or Lucille Ball Mame? And don’t even get me started on Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls (the latter of whom is cuter in the role than people give credit). And I’m not sure I was that nuts about Beyonce in Dreamgirls, though I did adore another American Idol – Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson – for her contributions to that film.

What’s my point – other than showing off all the useless and opinionated knowledge I carry around in my noggin? I’m not quite sure, other than everyone chill the freak out!

How was the show? It was fine – not revelatory but not a train wreck either. Quite the contrary. Yes, Underwood is not an actress, but she is a presence with a pleasant personality and a marvelous voice – all of which seemed to suit the rather bland, nun-lite role of Maria, if you ask me. (I kept thinking of Gwen Stefani the whole time for some reason – they vaguely resemble each other and I also love this riff by Stefani on “The Lonely Goatherd” – truly, check it out!)

Before I get labeled an Underwood apologist, let me say I have always been rather neutral about her. I hate American Idol. I love that she’s a vegan and an animal rights activist, vocally opposed to factory farming and ag gag bills. I find her preening, showy religiosity annoying – yes, we get it – you’re so “blessed.” I adore that she is a social progessive who believes in equal rights for all, including ardent support for gay marriageI do not like country music (unless it’s poppy stuff like Shania or Taylor). I enjoy Underwood more when she’s singing about smashing a cheating boyfriend’s car than when she’s imploring for “Jesus to take the wheel.” (She does seem to sing about motor vehicles a lot, come to think of it.)

The producers wisely surrounded Underwood with a cast of pros (True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer’s rigid and kinda dull take on Captain Von Trapp notwithstanding). Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess and Laura Benanti as the Baroness were the absolute rock star standouts of the night. I hate “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” but I was in tears from McDonald’s rendition. And Benanti was a sparkling delight, humanizing what could have been a villainous turn. She has a perfect light yet intelligent touch for this kind of production – I hope they do more with her. The kids were all fine and avoided the cloying, insufferable trap into which so many productions can fall. Newcomer Michael Campayno was marvelous in the tricky role of turncoat boyfriend Rolf.

The set design was sublime – beautifully detailed but consciously theatrical. And I got a visceral thrill when the cast would glide from one locale to another through an open door or a raised curtain, most notably when the family leaves their home for the climactic Nazi rally.

My criticism of the evening? Those d*mn creepy Wal-Mart ads that seemed designed to appeal to some modern, overpopulated, Midwestern yuppie family that buys too much crap and communicates in dull, cutesy quips via their cellular devices when they are one. room. away. from each other. Argh!

Why do people love this musical? And feel so fiercely protective of it? I’m not quite sure – there are much better shows out there, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s many other offerings. There is a strange princess element – young nun finding love with a stodgy rich man in a castle. An inversion of the Beauty and the Beast tale? Or is it the nightmare panic that the Nazi element offers, including the pulse-pounding (and clever) escape from that oppressive regime while singing the oddly creepy “So Long, Farewell.” Not sure, but clearly a lot of folks love this darn story, so bully to NBC and the production team and the cast for their accomplishment and for giving the Wal-Mart generation a glimpse of another era.

Let’s hope for more live theatre on network TV … and less Wal-Mart.