BWW Reviews: A Divine BETTE LIVE AT THE CONTINENTAL BATHS
If you're talking iconic performances on stage, Bette Midler's early performances at New York's Continental Baths surely rank up there with Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall and Woodstock. Many people claim to have attended these performances, but let's face it: the venues just weren't that big.
In the Divine Miss M's case, not much survives of her earliest performances at the baths, save for a few grainy, black and white film clips. Fans will definitely want to check out Hell in a Handbag's loving tribute to Midler's earlier days, BETTE LIVE AT THE CONTINENTAL BATHS: A TRIP DOWN MAMMARY LANE. If nothing else, it gives you a sense at how she first began to connect with and build her core audience. Her humor comes through a little more blue than nowadays (though no one would ever claim Midler's tours are exactly kid-friendly). This is Midler before Midler became the superstar.
One shouldn't discount the historic significance that the Continental holds. In addition to Bette Midler and her accompanist Barry Manilow, its cabaret attracted the likes of Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Manhattan Transfer, Elaine Stritch and The Andrews Sisters (just to name a few). The baths became more than just a place where gay men came for anonymous hook-ups, but rather a full-fledged entertainment center. Straight white people who only decades earlier trekked up to Harlem when they were feeling adventurous, came to the Continental on the Upper West Side of New York. The Continental catered to both the towel-clad men there for all the amenities the bath house had to offer and the fully-clothed patrons who were just there to see the talent. The straight and gay communities came together with the common purpose of being entertained; kind of like "Will & Grace," only a bit more blue and with a towel-clad ensemble cast.
Set in 1971 as Midler was making her "800th final appearance" at the baths, the evening is very much an origins story of the Divine Miss M. Caitlin Jackson has the daunting task of re-creating Midler -for which she is very much up to the challenge. Simply put, Jackson is divine as the Divine Miss M in a Jeff-worthy performance. Her Bette is a ballsy, take-no-prisoners performer. Some of the stage banter is taken from existing videos, but Jackson also proves adept enough to ad-lib here or there and is completely believable as her. The end result is less caricature and more of a well-rounded character.
She is accompanied on the piano by Jeremy Ramey as Midler's accompanist at the time, Barry Manilow. There are a few jokes thrown in for Manilow fans (I won't ruin them here) and Ramey (who also provides musical direction) deserves applauses for committing to Manilow's signature hairstyle (that wig of feathered hair has got to be hot).
The cast is rounded out by a pair of towel-clad bath house patrons, TJ Crawford andWill Wilheim. In addition to being eye candy, the pair act as emcees and back-up singers. Each is given a solo at the top of the show (Miss Midler is still getting ready, they tell us) and a duet at the top of the second act. All three songs fit nicely into Midler's set list and the pair succeed in warming up the crowd for the main event.
The night belongs to Jackson -and rightfully so. Her rendition of the Midler standard "Friends" is pitch-perfect in terms of matching Midler's vocal styling. She displays some fine comedic work in "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" and gets to the heart and soul of Midler in a haunting "Superstar" and "I Shall Be Released. If there is any criticism to be made, it is that the show's 90 minute runtime with intermission leaves you wanting more.
It's a trip down memory lane for Midler's fans and a reminder to everyone else of a time when gay life and culture was evolving. Midler was there and, in some ways, was leading the way. Or in the very least, she was entertaining the troops.
Too Many Fish in the Sea - (TJ Crawford)
Leader of the Pack - (Will Wilhelm)
Long John Blues
Empty Bed Blues
He's the Boy I Love (Crawford and Wilhelm)
Do You Wanna Dance?
Great Balls of Fire
Chapel of Love
I Shall Be Released
BETTE LIVE AT THE CONTINENTAL BATHS runs through Aug. 21 at Mary's Attic, 5400 N. Clark. Tickets $12-$35. Tickets available at www.handbagproductions.org.