By Erin Fleming
Hell in a Handbag Productions brings back their sell-out hit Bette, Live at the Continental Baths to just west of Boystown, at Stage 773, with just nine through September 9.
Adapted by David Cerda and Caitlin Jackson, directed and choreographed by Christopher Pazdernik, with music direction and arrangements by Jeremy Ramey, Bette… recreates the iconic singer’s famous concerts from New York City’s Continental Bathhouse in the early 1970s. The Baths was a popular gay bathhouse in the basement of the fading Ansonia Hotel on West 74th Street on the Upper West Side, often described as a “sexual Xanadu.” It was a place where gay men clad in white towels could freely socialize and be entertained by up-and-coming artists like Nell Carter, Melba Moore, Bette Midler and her unknown piano player Barry Manilow. It was here that Midler created her stage persona the Divine Miss M and earned her nickname Bathhouse Betty.
HiaH reproduces the seedy, steamy sizzle of The Baths, complete with the famed Mr. Gerard (portrayed by a hilariously wigged and curmudgeonly Chad) and singing Bathhouse Boys One and Two adoringly played by TJ Crawford and Will Wilhelm. The boys back up Miss Midler and open each act with campy choreography and satisfying harmony, expertly wielding their towels in place of big blue feather fans during Sisters, and interacting with the audience during The Boy I Love. Jeremy Ramey fills the role of a young Manilow nicely, doing what a good accompanist does, allowing the star to inhabit her spotlight. Ramey only steals the focus sparingly, either to mess up a punchline or to deliver a gorgeously grandiose piano solo during Superstar.
And speaking of superstars, no surprise that HiaH ensemble member extraordinaire Caitlin Jackson owns the night as the hostess of this party, reprising her role as Bette Midler with expert homage, and looking fabulous in Kate Setzer Kampausen’s costumes. With the slowly spreading smile, the Mae West eye rolls, the saucy ad libs, Jackson combines her own heart and soul with the trash and flash of the young singer, including a spot-on imitation of Midler’s vocal cadence and phrasing. Close your eyes, and you’ll swear you’re listening to one of the grainy recordings from an early 70’s concert—a few can be found on youtube—and Jackson’s performance will inspire you to listen to them for the rest of the weekend.
Fans of the Bathhouse Betty era are rewarded with a great set list of Midler’ early signature numbers, like the slow and dirty “Long John Blues,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Mambo Italiano,” “Going to the Chapel,” “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” and of course Midler’s long time anthem, “(You Got To Have) Friends.” Jackson is at her most Midler-esque when crooning out soulful and emotional interpretations of the ballads like “Superstar” and “Do You Wanna Dance,” ending the night with a cathartic rendition of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”
In this faithfully rendered cultural snapshot, Pazdernik and Ramey brilliantly capture the ambiance of a very specific time and place, significant not just in the sense that we get to witness the beginnings of Bette as an artist still experimenting and coming into her own, but also because this period was a real moment of note in the early days of the gay liberation movement. Cocktail tables and scantily clad dancers aside, the feeling is one of being at church, at a kind of revival, witnessing the ascension of the Divine Miss M, lifted by the adoration of her devoted community, and listening to that mutual love and acceptance and compassion being passed back and forth between them all night. Plus some great dirty Sophie Tucker jokes. Because, otherwise it just gets too heavy, doll.
The performance is a tight 80 minutes including intermission—a perfect summer evening entertainment, leaving you plenty of time to catch a quick disco nap or another few Harvey Wallbangers before heading out to the clubs.
Hell in a Handbag Productions presents, “Bette, Live at the Continental Baths” through September 10 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets ($26 in advance; $28 at the door) are available here.