NEW YORK — IN recent years there have been Liza, Aretha, Diana, and Whitney, but no appearance by a contemporary diva matched the excitement that was generated by Bette Midler on opening night at the Radio City Music Hall. The ``Divine Miss M,'' who started out so many years ago, and whose last concert appearance in New York was more than 10 years ago, made a triumphant homecoming.
Now, of course, she is a show-business institution, a movie star who makes films for Disney (which she joked about in her opening number). But the traces of the old bawdy Bette still remain, at least enough to render the show at New York's family showplace a joyous reminder of where she came from. Spotting a family in the front row, she exclaimed in mock horror, ``You brought your kids?''
One of the differences between the Midler of now and the Midler of yore is that she has had some mega-successes in her spotty recording career. In the quieter second half of her concert, she settled down to deliver powerful versions of her smash ballads ``From a Distance'' and ``Wind Beneath My Wings.'' Although she gently made fun of the songs, her delivery revealed a voice that is stronger and more supple than ever before. She also displayed, in her performance of John Prine's moving ``Hello, in There,'' a surprising capacity for subtle emoting.
But it is the outrageous Midler that the audience came to see, and she did not disappoint. Weaving a comic monologue throughout the entire show, she was consistently hilarious, particularly when discussing the horrors of life on Long Island and the tabloid fascination with the Buttafuocos. The large-scale production numbers also reprised several Midler favorites. Accompanied by her new trio of ``politically correct'' Harlettes, she brought back Delores Del Lago, the sharp-tongued, lounge-singer mermaid, and performed a riotous medley that managed to combine the Village People with ``The Greatest Love of All.'' She also performed a number of risque jokes in her classic Sophie Tucker manner.
Less successful was an extended production number that was a takeoff on a burlesque show, involving, among other things, the use of painted faces on bare female torsos. But it did set up Midler's version of ``Rose's Turn,'' from her forthcoming television movie of ``Gypsy,'' and her performance of it was spectacular. Mama Rose is a role she was born to play, and it's a commentary on today's culture that ``Gypsy'' will only be seen on television, while in the movies Midler embarrasses herself as a demented witch in Disney's witless ``Hocus Pocus.''
As part of her tour, Midler is practically making Radio City a second home, playing an unprecedented 30 performances. When she leaves, the next attraction will be that other New York institution, the Christmas show.