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THEATER REVIEW Bette! Live at the Continental Baths
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2015-07-29

This article shared 2076 times since Wed Jul 29, 2015
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Playwright: Various composers. At: Hell in a Handbag Productions at Mary's Attic, 5400 N. Clark St. Tickets: www.handbagproductions.org; $20-$35. Runs through: Aug. 21

No sooner had Juvenal coined his famous 100 A.D. catch phrase, "Mens Sana in Corpore Sano" ( "a healthy mind in a healthy body" ) than his fellow Greeks began to use it as an excuse for turning "health" clubs into emporiums for refreshment of organs at both ends of the spine—a tradition that continues to this day, when men seeking privacy for trysts with other men can frolic at luxurious facilities offering multi-sensory recreation ranging from steam baths to make-out rooms to cabaret entertainment. Given the predominantly male market for such services, it is ironic that, of all the talents honing their craft in New York City's foremost same-sex erotopia, the greatest success should fall to a female artist.

Bette Midler's stage persona ( dubbed "The Divine Miss M" ) likewise traces her origins to antiquity—specifically, to the cross-dressing bawds of classical Roman comedy, gender-integrated by our modern culture to allow women appearing as their own lusty selves. Miss M's vocal stylings are also informed by the vaudeville legacies of Jewish torch singers and African-American blues shouters, as well as six decades of girl-group harmonies exalting the hormonal exuberance of young love. With the addition of an accompanist destined for fame in his own right as the award-winning songwriter Barry Manilow and an endless supply of ribald patter delivered with indulgent quasi-maternal affection, a diva was born, rising like Botticelli's Venus from the hot tubs of the urban underground.

The revue assembled by Hell In A Handbag productions proposes to replicate a night with her Divineness in 1971. Flanked on keyboards by a bewigged Jeremy Ramey playing the golden-locked Manilow of the period, a pair of back-up warblers portrayed by TJ Crawford and Will Wilhelm ( wearing towels anchored at the pelvic bone by some mysterious epidermal-adhesive ), and a few strolling incognitos in beach robes lending a perfunctory lavatorial atmosphere to the Mary's Attic loft, Caitlin Jackson commands the spotlight for an eclectic selection from Midler's early repertoire, including a bouncy "Chattanooga Choo Choo," an operatic "Superstar," a low-down-dirty "Empty Bed Blues"( "my springs are getting rusty" ) and her signature anthem, "Friends."

The press performance seemed a trifle under-rehearsed—or maybe the audience underserved. ( Don't the lines, "Going to the chapel and we're gonna get married" deserve a cheer? ) The infectious glee essential to the Midler aesthetic was clearly in evidence under Christopher Pazdernik's direction, nevertheless, and will likely be in full bloom by the time you read this.


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