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Review: THE DIVINE MISS BETTE at Dunstan Playhouse at the Festival Centre

Review by Lisa Lanzi

The indefatigable Sydney-based performer Catherine Alcorn has visited Adelaide with a number of shows over the years and finally, she has made her way into the Cabaret Festival with The Divine Miss Bette.  Already a hit elsewhere in Australia, and America, this artist is a force of nature as she channels the marvellous Bette Midler - the vocals, the jokes, the sass, the walk, the innuendo, and shrewd impromptu audience takedowns.

I own to having mixed feelings about ‘tribute’ shows however Ms Alcorn’s talent is indisputable and the homage is accomplished with respect and a whole lotta love.  All the Midler favourites pepper the one hour and twenty five minute presentation, complete with sparkling costume changes and a fabulous band: Benjamin Kiehne - piano and Musical Director, Sam Leske - guitar, Ben Todd - drums, and Crick Boue - bass.  This four-piece provided a lively and accomplished performance sound, far more luscious than you might expect considering the absence of a brass section.  At the start, the vocals/band sound balance seemed a little off but was quickly and masterfully corrected.  

Alcorn’s back-up trio were also a huge asset.  Named for Midler’s own backing group The Staggering Harlettes (with shifting membership as the years progressed) these women are absolute stars.  ‘Misty, Fisty, and Vendetta’ are Kat Hoyos, Chloe Marshall and Karla Hillam and they perfectly harmonize while dancing their sequins off showcasing Cameron Mitchell’s lively, slightly naughty choreography.  All three of these women are accomplished actor/singer/movers in their own right and their energy was core to the overall success of The Divine Miss Bette.  Apparently Miss Bette found them “selling their cherries at the Farmer’s Market… but they kept the box they came in”!

Bathhouse bawdiness is often key here with incisive direction from Ted Robinson. Alcorn delivered a welcome series of Midler’s ‘Sophie Tucker’ jokes about “my boyfriend Ernie and my girlfriend Clementine” to great applause with, of course, the celebrated twanging intro “I will never forget it you knooowww…”.  It was also impressive to see Alcorn interact seamlessly with the audience, having to work hard at first to rev up a significant portion of the Adelaide glitterati belonging to a greying demographic.  Fortunately there were enough rowdy and appreciative fans to work the room and add to the back and forth banter.  The Ages 16 and up rating is a fine indication of the content and language scattered amongst the musical numbers.

Absolutely nailing the tottering Midler walk, the facial contortions, and her widespread arm gestures to both invite applause and indicate love and appreciation for the audience, Alcorn sang from the heart.  The belt, the breathiness, and soaring ballads all scored well with cabaret fans.  Possibly ‘Hello In There’ best showcased Alcorn’s vocal and emotional range, but I may be biased by my love of that song.  ‘Do You Want To Dance’ (1972 - “If you remember the 70s, you didn’t do it right”) was also gorgeous, starting slowly and seductively but increasing in tempo with the addition of The Harlettes’ harmonies.  A version of The Beatles’ ‘In My Life’ once again showcased Alcorn’s vocal brilliance.

Of course, the upbeat numbers were popular: ‘In The Mood’, ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ (with a surprising segue into Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’ and back again), and ‘You’ve Got To Have Friends’; plus the entertaining ‘Otto Titsling’ from the Beaches movie about “two of Midler’s favourite things:  Industrial espionage and t*ts!”.  One surprise saw Alcorn and her Harlettes zooming downstage, into the audience, up the side stairs and into one of the balconies for Midler’s hit ‘From A Distance’ with many a pun included.  This was an excellent nod to cabaret style largesse which to my mind can be stymied when delivered solely from the proscenium arch.

Another delightful and welcome surprise came after the finale medley which, prior to the above-mentioned Andrew Sisters’ hit, included ‘The Rose’ (all the sweeter after the audience attempt where we were invited to sing first), ‘Stay With Me’, and ‘Sentimental Journey’.  With admonishment from Miss Bette to “WAIT!”, the curtain descended and in anticipation we wondered what might transpire.   Alcorn returned, after quite the pause in proceedings, in a dazzling full-length black velvet gown, sans wig, as herself.  After genuine, stirring words about the value of Adelaide’s Cabaret Festival, the long road to get her show here, and the gift of enthusiastic, supportive audiences, we were treated to a pared back ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’.  Featuring solo piano and Alcorn’s smooth, heartfelt vocals it was a pleasure to see this artist on her own terms.

As an imitation of Midler, it may be difficult to find better, although I recall fondly New Yorker Amber Martin delivering a powerhouse Cabaret Festival show in 2021 with Bathhouse Bette.  However, there is no doubt Catherine Alcorn is a fine singer and entertainer with an electric stage presence.  I hope in future there are more opportunities for this artist to shine in her own right, and showcase her own, singular voice.

Image Supplied


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