"Bette, Live at the Continental Baths" Review- a fun show with great music brought back to Stage 773

Hell in a Handbag Productions is currently presenting “Bette, Live at the Continental Baths; A Trip Down Mammary Lane" at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago. With Caitlin Jackson as Bette Midler, Jeremy Ramey as Barry Manilow, TJ Crawford and Will Wilhelm as The Bathhouse Boys and “Chad” as Mr. Gerald, bathhouse emcee, the 75 minute performance will be staged only 9 times through September 10, 2016. The show is a return of last season’s hit, was adapted by David Cerda from Bette Midler’s historic batthouse concert in New York, and features musical direction and arrangement by Jeremy Ramey with choreography by Christopher Pazdernik.

T.J. Crawford, Caitlin Jackson and Will Wilhelm star in "Bette, Live at The Continental Baths"

Hell in a Handbag Productions is the only theater in Chicago dedicated to camp and the use of “parody, music and homage” to preserve and celebrate “works ingrained in the popular culture”. "The Divine Miss M" certainly fits the description of a performer whose life and works can be so nostalgically enshrined and explored. Her career as an American singer, songwriter, actress, comedian and producer has spanned half a century. Midler herself made great use of parody, such as her take-offs on Sophie Tucker and The Andrew Sisters (which were used in the instant production) and high drama-camp, and she became an icon, similar to Judy Garland, for the gay community. Indeed, she rose to prominence when she began singing and schmaltzing it up in The Continental Baths, a local (off-off-Broadway) bathhouse, gaining an enthusiastic following.

T.J. Crawford, Caitlin Jackson and Will Wilhelm dancing and singing

Midler has a throaty, sexy, deep and impressive instantly recognizable voice and her personal mannerisms- adjusting her sizable bosom, wafting her arms in broad gestures, exaggerating a New York accent (she was born in Honolulu), and fluffing her hair- are part of her indelible “signature”. It would be difficult for any singer to capture her personality, but Jackson gave it a run for her money, and has an impressive voice herself. She also captured the glee, the guts, the bawdiness- and all in spangly sexy costumes by Kate Setzer Kamphausen.

Caitlin Jackson belts it out as Bette Midler

Throughout Midler’s career, many of her distinctive renditions of songs became hits on the record charts, and quite a few of them, especially her “torch songs”, are put across in this show, including “Long ago and Far Away”, “Do You Wanna Dance”, and “Any Day Now”.  The audience was also treated to a number of “kitschier” popular songs of earlier eras like “ Going to the Chapel”, “My Boyfriend’s Back “, “Chatanooga Choo-Choo”, as well as the finale, her blockbuster hit” Friends”.

T. J. Crawford, Caitlin Jackson and Will Wilhelm at Stage 773

Staging the show in the Continental Baths was not only a historically accurate note, it allowed for the addition of two sing-along towel wrapped “boys” -(that’s how “Bette” referred to them)-who added a note of precariously draped eye-candy and some pleasant hoofing, harmonizing and canoodling to the performance. Jeremy Ramey in an ill-fitting blonde wig really had no speaking part as Barry Manilow, but he’s a fine piano player and was a harmless foil for the star’s occasional and gently teasing quips.

Caitlin Jackson as Bette Midler in "Bette, Live at The Continental Baths"

The show is filled with cute remarks, laughs, audience participation, some singing-along and good music. It’s fun and recommended.

 

For tickets and information, go to www.handbagproductions.org

 

All photos courtesy of Rick Aguilar Studios

 

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