Chicago Theatre Review
Bette, LIVE at the Continental Baths – Hell in a Handbag
Back in 1970, a buxom beauty with a halo of blazing red curls and a personality and vocal power to fill a stadium, Bette Midler established herself as an indomitable force of nature when she began singing at one of New York’s most popular gay bathhouses. She was accompanied on piano by her friend, Barry Manilow, who would go on to produce her first album two years later. Despite her unconventional beginnings, Ms. Midler went on to become a bona fide star.
First, with release of her debut album, “The Divine Miss M,” followed by a number of electrifying appearances on “The Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson,” and eventually performing live concerts, Better Midler secured her position as much more than simply a gay icon. She went on to record several more top-selling record albums, to headline a TV special, touring in several spectacular live concerts and to star in dramatic films, like “The Rose” and “Beaches,” and comedy classics, like “Ruthless People” and “Outrageous Fortune.” In short, the Divine One, whose star continues to blaze brightly, has pretty much done it all. And while she’s become a superstar in almost every medium, Ms. Midler continually acknowledges that she began as a chanteuse at the Continental Baths.
Director Christopher Pazdernik and Musical Director Jeremy Ramey have teamed up to create this funny, loving homage to one of our brightest contemporary celebrities. Located above Andersonville’s trendy Hamburger Mary’s Restaurant, Mary’s Attic has been turned into a retro gay bathhouse stage in which four talented performers recreate one sultry summer night in 1971, when the Divine Miss M was just beginning to take the entertainment world by storm. Incorporating the singer’s brassy, flashy style and swagger, Caitlin Jackson projects that special charisma that is Bette Midler’s trademark. Displaying a powerful set of pipes, Ms. Jackson does Ms. Midler proud. Refraining from any inclination to impersonate the singer, Caitlin Jackson instead creates the essence of Bette Midler, employing a few of her signature gestures, facial expressions and phraseology. However, while Ms. Jackson’s powerhouse singing is always a treat for the ears, she never fully replicates Midler’s unmistakable vocal style. Still, this is a very entertaining evening and a loving trip down memory lane for audiences who recall the exquisite Bette Midler in her prime.
Mr. Pazdernik has backed the lovely Ms. Jackson with two sexy, talented young men, the sparkling Will Wilhelm and the smoldering T.J. Crawford, provocatively clad only in tiny white towels. They serve as the evening’s emcees, while also providing backup vocals. In addition, they offer humorous banter, a few jokes and a couple solo numbers, providing a respite for Ms. Jackson. Musical Director supreme, Jeremy Ramey has guided his gifted cast, accompanying them at his onstage keyboard, in the guise of Barry Manilow. The show opens and closes with Midler’s spirited anthem to companionship, “Friends,” although first, Mr. Crawford delights by declaring there’s “Too Many Fish in the Sea,” while Mr. Wilhelm amuses as the real “Leader of the Pack.” The show continues with Midler hits, like “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” “Superstar,” “Do You Wanna Dance?” and “Chapel of Love.” Ms. Jackson also offers a titillating “Long John Blues,” a soulful “Empty Bed Blues,” and she closes with the stirring “I Shall Be Released.” In between, Ms. Jackson banters with her boys, flirts with her bathhouse devotees and segues between musical numbers with some fitting words of wisdom.
This brassy tribute to the lady, whose career began as an entertainer in a Manhattan bathhouse, is a joyful musical celebration of the phenomenon that is Bette Midler. Clad in gorgeous costumes created by Kate Setzer Kamphausen, Caitlin Jackson is a delight. Offering cheeky comedy and accomplished renditions of Miss Midler’s best-loved early hits, Ms. Jackson and her boys, under the expert direction of Christopher Pazdernik and Jeremy Ramey, provide a raunchy, rousing, tuneful revelry. This entertaining homage to the one-and-only bawdy, Bathhouse Betty is a really cool way to spend a warm summer night.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented Friday and Saturdays, 17-August 21, by Hell in a Handbag Productions at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by going to www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1391656.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.