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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Live from Chicago, it's Bette Midler and Her Bathhouse Boys!



There is - and always will be - only one Bette Midler. But for a limited time you can now "Experience the Divine" in a highly entertaining musical tribute by Chicago's Hell in a Handbag Productions. However, this Bette - played by the fabulous and funny Caitlin Jackson - is from July 1971 when she was performing for all the bathhouse boys with her piano accompanist Barry Manilow. So this is long before The Rose and Beaches and Hocus Pocus - and even her Grammy-nominated performance of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy". Instead we are introduced to a young and aspiring Miss M on her last night as the star attraction at New York City's Continental Baths - and it's 80 minutes (with an intermission) of groovy music and laughter that any Bette fan will thoroughly enjoy.

Ms. Jackson does a great impersonation of Midler with just the right amount of sass and ample cleavage - and, most importantly, she possesses a "divine" singing voice as she croons some familiar tunes that will eventually appear on Bette's debut album, The Divine Miss M, including "Friends", "Do You Want to Dance?", "Superstar" and "Chapel of Love". She also does a fine interpretation - in her own unique style - of "Mambo Italiano" (32 years before her Rosemary Clooney tribute album) and Jerry Lee Lewis' 1957 hit, "Great Balls of Fire". And Jackson's Bette leaves you wanting more as I could have easily stayed and listened to her sing for another hour or two.

I also must mention Bette's bathhouse boys - and talented back-up singers - TJ Crawford and Will Wilhelm, who each get a chance to musically shine in their skimpy white towels. And then there is Jeremy Ramey, whose Barry Manilow wig totally transfixed me as did his expert music direction (and kudos to wig designer Karen Kawa). But without a brassy and bawdy Bette at center stage, there is no show. Fortunately, Handbag has such a delightful diva in Caitlin Jackson, who - along with director/choreographer Christopher Pazdernik - takes us on a steamy trip down "mammary" lane that is definitely worth the ride.

Bette, Live at the Continental Baths runs through August 21 at Mary's Attic (5400 N. Clark). For tickets, go to www.handbagproductions.org.

Photo credit: Rick Aguilar Studios

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