Full disclosure: Unless Hell in a Handbag Productions really dropped the ball in mounting its latest stage offering, “Bette, Live at the Continental Baths: A Trip Down Mammary Lane,” I was predisposed to love it.
In the first place, as a child born in the 1970s and raised in the ’80s, I’m well positioned to appreciate the canon of work produced by the Divine Ms. M. And secondly, throughout my 20s when I tripped the light fantastic as the unofficial queen of Boys’ Town, I was compared more than once — in appearance and energy — to Midler in her Bathhouse Bette days. A compliment in the extreme.
I’m pleased to report that beyond my own fangirl adoration for Better Midler, and a flattered ego which allows a perceived red-headed kinship with the star, Hell in a Handbag Productions puts on one hell of a tribute. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Pazdernik, with music direction by Jeremy Ramey (who also appears onstage as Midler’s original Continental Baths accompanist, Barry Manilow), “Bette, Live at the Continental Baths: A Trip Down Mammary Lane,” is an exuberant display of humor, showmanship and vocal chops.
This conclusion is largely due to Caitlyn Jackson, who embodies Ms. Midler in the spectacular production. The fact that Jackson is not already an A-list recording artist with a cabinet full of Grammys and Tony awards is a matter of sheer timing and eventuality. Do yourself a favor and catch her in this show, or anything else in which the actress might appear, so you can later tell friends, “I knew her when…” Because Jackson KILLS it. SLAYS it. Like if you close your eyes, it’s easy to believe the woman singing her heart out onstage IS Bette Midler. It’s not just the songs. It’s the verbal and bodily tics. It’s the comedic timing. It’s the way Jackson is able to make every line sound fresh, as though we’re the first audience to hear it. She is simply amazing.
Jackson is capably backed by the Bathhouse Boys, T.J. Crawford and Will Wilhelm. In addition to being talented vocalists in their own right, the men provide cheeky humor (pun definitely intended) as Midler’s Ronettes for the newly GLBT-awakened 1970s. With their tiny towels and powerful voices, they ironically and attractively turn traditional nightclub misogyny on its ear, happy to service Queen M. The trio works its way through a list of piano bar standards such as “Mambo Italiano” and “Friends,” also delving into Midler’s professed admiration for the doo-wop hits of the 1960s. Thus the audience is treated to lush, harmonied versions of “Chapel of Love” and “Great Balls of Fire” among other early rock ‘n roll classics.
Press materials characterize “Bette, Live at the Continental Baths” as a “loving recreation of the beginning of Ms. Midler’s stellar career… done in Bette’s inimitable style. Well, nearly inimitable.” I couldn’t agree more. I would also add that the show offers appeal for students of history — musical, the arc of equality and general entertainment — the kind of education that makes one’s face hurt from all the joy.
I have but one complaint: the awful brevity of the show. Running roughly 80 minutes with an intermission, it’s highly likely you’ll be left wanting much more at curtain fall. However, this mild quibble is more than offset by the affordable ticket price ($20 in advance for the regular run), Jackson’s otherworldly talent and the promise of more quality entertainment from Hell in a Handbag Productions’ 2015/2016 season.
“Bette, Live at the Continental Baths: A Trip Down Mammary Lane” runs through August 21 at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N Clark Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit the Hell in a Handbag Productions website.