The Divine Miss Bette
Starring Catherine Alcorn
Sydney Opera House
Reviewed by Ron Lee, CSP
The tribute/send-up artist genre isn’t one that I would normally cover but Catherine Alcorn has won industry awards and there was hype around her Sydney Opera House debut.
I had the privilege of experiencing a Bette Midler concert at the State Theatre in 1978. Midler wore a red corset, wild hair, fishnet stockings and high heels and had us dancing in the aisles while she sang Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. Then she pulled her hair back, put on an overcoat and had us crying during her rendition of Hello in There. She did the upbeat/ballad switch about six times, taking us to emotional extremes.
The Divine Miss Bette is a show that is both irritating and awe-inspiring.
When Alcorn emerged sporting the larger-than-life wig and none too subtle make-up, my mind traveled back to cabaret shows at Capriccio’s and Les Girls.
Wind Beneath My Wings, The Rose, Delta Dawn, Do You Wanna Dance?, In The Mood, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, Hello in There, From a Distance; all of the songs were there.
A feature is Alcorn’s interaction with audience members, much like a good stand-up comedian, but in this show, the performer walks into the auditorium to be up close with the people to whom she pays attention.
In her concerts, Bette Midler performs her interpretation of Sophie Tucker’s vaudeville comedy routines, and Alcorn does an exaggerated version of Midler’s. There’s something unappealing about a performer doing an over-the-top impression of someone else’s impression of another performer, especially if there’s too much of it.
On the positive side, and there is a huge one, Alcorn’s singing voice is stupendous. Not only does she hit all of the notes with certainty, she can sell a song like few other singers. The build-up to the songs is done with humour, but once into each one, the emotions quickly emerge.
There are usually three Harlettes, the backing singers, but this must be a budget version with only two. That expressed, Kirby Burgess and Phoebe Panaretos compensate for the lack of the third, and Musical Director David J. Andrew and his band are rock solid.
During the performance, listening to the astounding vocals, I couldn’t help but want to attend a performance in which Alcorn performs those songs and many others as herself without the encumbrance of an exaggerated impersonation.
If you go to see The Divine Miss Bette and you close your eyes, you won’t for a minute think that you’re hearing Bette Midler. You will, however, experience a superb performer who deserves to be appreciated in her own right.