It’s easy to forget that Bette Midler got her start performing at New York gay bathhouses early in her career – before the movies, hit records, concert tours. For many that Bette Midler, before she got Hollywoodized and drowned her distinct voice in adult contemporary bunting, was the real artist. Bursting with energy and talent, her voice was raw and ragged – her singing overripe and pitchy, but always expressive. Her humor was bawdy and vulgar.
Hell In A Handbag Productions’ Bette Live At the Continental Baths: A Trip Down Mammary Lane is an affectionate and smart tribute to Midler’s stint at the Continental Baths. Caitlin Jackson stars as Midler in a beautiful performance. It’s not an impression nor is it a parody: instead, Jackson creates a well-rounded character. Jackson doesn’t try to mimic Midler’s voice (her voice is actually prettier than Midler’s Continental Baths days voice), and instead sings the selections with her own stamp on it – inspired by Midler’s shaggy renditions of ditties like “Friends,” “Superstar” or “I Shall Be Released” – but wholly her own. Jackson also throws around the one-liners and gags with a bawdy insouciance – the jokes are silly, obvious, and often corny, but that’s okay – much of Midler’s comedy is good-naturedly tongue in cheek and self-referential.
Performed at Stage 773 in Lake View, the Cab Theater is a small and intimate setting. It works as a recreation of the Continental Baths, and just to make things even more realistic, Jackson is flanked by two towel-clad dancers – TJ Crawford and Will Wilhelm – who provide comic and musical backup support for Jackson’s Midler. The two men, looking very fetching in their short-short towels perform ably and get a few numbers of their own. Musical director, pianist, and arranger Jeremy Ramey is also on hand, doing an impressive job on the piano, pretending to be a young Barry Manilow, who was Midler’s accompanist during her Continental Baths days.
But the show belongs to Caitlin Jackson who does a beautiful job. She’s commanding and has a gorgeous voice. Despite performing as Bette Midler, she puts a definite stamp of her own on the songs. Her rendition of The Carpenters’ “Superstar” is stirring and lovely, as she allows the pathos of the tune shine through with her emotional performance. Another profoundly-moving tune, Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” becomes a nearly-sacred experience with Jackson’s soulful singing. But she also includes some fun numbers, including a cracking reworking of The Dixie Cups’ Brill Building classic “Chapel of Love” (with wonderful support by Crawford and Wilhelm), and a high-octane performance of the Big Band ditty “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” And she makes Midler’s theme song “Friends” all her own.
There are only a few performances left, and I urge theater goers to catch a show. And the voting members of the Joseph Jefferson Awards would do well to consider gifting Jackson’s fantastic performance with a nomination.