Now 72 years of age, Bette Midler has enjoyed a career in entertainment spanning six decades. It’s included the release of 14 studio albums and countless appearances on stage and film. Along the way, Midler has picked up three Grammy Awards, four Golden Globe Awards and two Tony Awards. Her most recent Tony was awarded last year for her starring role in the Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! Today, Midler will close that production which, given her pull with audiences, has seen its producers charging up to US$1,000 (A$1,365) for front row seats.
Midler’s last visit to Australia was on her 2005 Kiss My Brass Tour. But in Sydney this weekend, audiences can catch award-winning artist and producer Catherine Alcorn pay homage to the internationally-acclaimed diva in The Divine Miss Bette. Over the past several years, Alcorn has toured the show across Australia and, earlier in 2018, made her US debut, selling out five cities with her tribute to the Divine Miss M. She’s performed on stage in Sydney many times, but this is her first outing at the Sydney Opera House.
The Divine Miss Bette is a hugely entertaining reflection on Midler’s extensive career. She enters the Playhouse, flanked by her two Harlettes (musical theatre performers Kirby Burgess and Phoebe Panaretos), delivering a vibrant rendition of the 1973 hit ‘(You Got to Have) Friends’. Other highlights from early in the evening include Midler’s take on the Cole Porter-penned ‘Miss Otis Regrets’, ‘Delta Dawn’ (an international hit for our own Helen Reddy), and the down-tempo ‘Am I Blue’. Towards the end of Act 1, Alcorn offers her rendition of another standout from Midler’s debut album, ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ – her hit cover of Bobby Freeman’s 1958 Top 5 single.
Fans of Midler on film will find joy in Act II, which includes two mandatory numbers in any of her own setlists – 1979’s ‘The Rose’ (recorded for the Janis Joplin-inspired picture of the same name) and the 1989 Grammy-winning chart-topper ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’. In fact, fans of Beaches will also be pleased to be treated to Alcorn’s takes on ‘Under the Boardwalk’ and even the cheeky ‘Otto Titsling’. From roughly the same time in her career, Midler’s ‘From a Distance’ is also on the list and, of course, The Andrews Sisters’ ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ is another staple of Midler’s shows taken on here by Alcorn.
And if one’s fondness for the diva is derived from her unrefined and outrageous stage humour, Alcorn’s act includes a lion’s share of Sophie Tucker jokes, which remain as funny – and as crass – as they were decades ago. With so many moments of Midler’s career so thoughtfully referenced, The Divine Miss Bette is the kind of tribute which could only be conceived of by a superfan.
The songs are wonderfully performed; Alcorn’s powerful vocals do justice to each track and the quality of her vocals is consistent right until the final note of the evening. Matching Alcorn’s vocal ability is her skilful comedic timing. She imitates Midler, often achieving this with a single facial expression or a sashay across the stage.
That said, this is not a mere Bette Midler impersonation. Part of what makes The Divine Miss Bette so successful is our ability to see the performer behind the character, who is laudably talented in her own right. She infuses her own personality into the show, enhancing the overall experience. On top of that, while Alcorn has long been performing as Midler (since 2009, her vocal coach has been Steve Ostrow – the man who discovered the Divine), the show is slick and polished but still has plenty of sidebar moments. Alcorn is a natural with the crowd, and her ability to respond in character to her audience’s unpredictability is impressive.
The Divine Miss Bette is a terrific evening of entertainment for long-time fans looking to reminisce about the star’s greatest moments, for non-fans keen to discover a legend, and for those who enjoy witnessing fine Australian talent taking to the stage.
THE DIVINE MISS BETTE – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: The Studio, Sydney Opera House
Season: Playing until Sunday 26 August, 2018
Prices: $69 and $59 (plus Booking Fee)
Bookings: sydneyoperahouse.com or (02) 9250 7777