Review By Lisa Lanzi
Texan-born, New York resident Amber Martin sings Bob Dylan’s words “I see my light come shining” and WOW does this woman shine - personality ++, first-class vocals, humour and dynamic connection with just a dash of menopausal ‘glow’ and the accompanying jokes around it. A totally entertaining cabaret package, even after the two week quarantine stay.
During our brisk Adelaide winters (apart from, ahem, 2020) we are fortunate to be warmed up by the always fabulous Adelaide Cabaret Festival, this year led by Alan Cumming, our first international Director in the Festival’s twenty one year history. It is a great chance to step out in your grooviest boots and most magnificent coats and mix with Adelaide’s, and the world’s, famous and talented types.
This year we have an extra venue, The Famous Spiegeltent, parked on the lawns by the River Torrens. As we all lined up, masks and QR code check-in at the ready with glass of something delicious in hand there were lots of jokes about the length of the line but everyone was obviously delighted to be out and about again and seeing live performance.
Attending a show where the performer is to pay homage to a beloved and revered performer such as Bette Midler did give me some level of anxiety but at Amber Martin’s first note, all doubt was dispelled. As this magnificent, larger-than-life bundle of energy performed “Friends” I knew I could relax and simply enjoy.
The brilliantly chosen focus for Bathhouse Bette centres on the Divine Miss M’s early years in the 70s as a chorus girl on Broadway when she moonlighted doing gigs at The Continental Baths as well as her first two studio albums. This infamous gay bathhouse in the basement of The Ansonia Hotel in New York City was opened in 1968 by Steve Ostrow and advertised as reminiscent of "the glory of ancient Rome”. Apparently, Ms Martin informs us, the space is now a parking garage. Midler’s ‘partner in crime’ during this time was a very young, closeted, Barry Manilow who wrote and /or arranged her songs.
With captivating stories of Bette Midler’s adventures, and her own colourful and personal, sometimes raunchy, asides, Amber Martin wove a magical atmosphere around the songs any fan adores. This was not in any way an impersonation of the star but a love-letter to her magnificence and a homage to Bette Midler’s enduring talent. What’s more, Ms Martin’s vocal ability equals and sometimes outshines Midler’s with less fry and vibrato, more range and a stronger, richer belt, leaving the audience, and me, absolutely stunned. This performer could emulate the tones and nuances of Miss M’s vocals as needed or as she chose to, but the sheer power of Martin’s voice was a revelation.
Every song was a standout, like the crazy up tempo (with chorry) version of Chattanooga Choo Choo - there is a YouTube clip of Midler doing this at The Continental Baths in 1971 - illustrating Miss M’s fascination with and admiration of the songs and all-female groups of the 40s. Martin also ‘educated’ us about the first African American female blues singer, Lucille Bogan (I kid you not!) also known as Bessie Jackson. Her songs were often sexually explicit and although Midler did not sing this particular blues tune, she would have definitely approved. Shave ‘em Dry is eye-wateringly explicit and how it was received in 1936 is anyone’s guess! Look it up if you dare.
My personal favourites from this show were Martin’s performance of Leon Russel’s Superstar and Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, the latter reducing me to tears. Bette was still a relative unknown when she sang Superstar during an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson the year before her first album was released. Richard Carpenter was apparently inspired by that performance and arranged the song for the Carpenters which took them to #2 position on the Billboard ‘Hot 100’. Do You Want To Dance? was another perfect rendition with that trademark breathiness making an appearance, not to mention the perfect, always thrilling, modulation at the halfway point.
Joining Martin on stage were three outstanding musicians. At the piano and singing backing vocals was Henry Koperski, a multi-talented musician also appearing with Alan Cumming at this Festival. A double major in Jazz Saxophone Performance and Classical Bassoon Performance at Western Michigan University, he has been described as “the connective tissue” of the NYC music/comedy scene. Superb local guitarist Django Rowe played with Martin at the 2018 Cabaret Festival when she was performing Janis: Undead and she specifically requested him to join her for this gig. To my shame, I missed the name of the drummer but Ms Martin gave a generous and heartfelt introduction for each band-member and this musician supplied the subtle, grounded rhythms for the set with great artistry.
Bathhouse Bette is not for the prudish, just a heads up! There is frank talk about p*ssy, sex, drinking plus a whole song’s worth of nudity and lots of colourful language. Oh, and two male dancers who grind and bump with abandon. The spirit and verve of Bette Midler and her songs is represented in this show but the generous, larger-than-life presence and sheer talent of Amber Martin is the attraction. Catch her anytime she is in your town - you will not be disappointed.