The Divine Miss Bette

Catherine-Alcorn-The-Divine-Miss-Bette-photo-by-Claudio-RaschellaYou rarely get a chance to see the biggest stars of Broadway, the silver screen, or the recording industry at the peak of their powers on stages Down Under.

Astutely, the Adelaide Cabaret Festival has filled this gap in the market. Festival punters were able to see a star from all three realms (well, very nearly) in the enthralling The Divine Miss Bette (originally created by Peter Cox) starring Sydney’s Catherine Alcorn.

Adelaide Cabaret Festival history leans more towards Brecht and Weil than Bette Midler (aside from 2011’s fun Josie in the Bathhouse starring Josie Lane). However, having The Divine Miss M in the program also reaquaints us with some weighty songs about pain caused by human failings.

Not that this is a show purely of loss and woe. The program promised us “a thrilling roller-coaster ride” through Alcorn’s tribute to Midler, and delivered comedic highs to balance the plunges into emotional depths.

In sparkly outfits and a floral hair accessory recalling Midler’s style, Alcorn surely looked the part. Details like vocal inflections, fluttering lashes, and that trademark staccato walk on stage showed our performer’s commitment to her subject.

Alcorn also credibly (and humorously) extrapolated Midler-esque banter to this setting with some cutting jibes at Adelaide and audience members.

The show has some of the razzle-dazzle you would expect from Bette Midler live. Backing singers and dancers The Harlettes – Misty (Kat Hoyos), Fisty (Chloe Marshall) and Vendetta (Karla Hillam) – brought sequinned glamour, bright and pleasing harmonies, and almost never tried to upstage our diva.

Through Cameron Mitchell’s choreography, the foursome showed hip-shaking confidence and vigor, and some cheesy formation work recalling the playfulness of some Midler routines.

This festival tends to get the sound mix right (not all do), which helped us appreciate the talents of the four-piece band. From his piano, Musical Director Benjamin Kiehne showed delicate control of volume and appropriate jauntiness as necessary.

With Ben Todd’s crisp work on drums, Crick Boue’s bass rumbling, and some lively twang from Sam Leske’s guitar, the band delivered a high-quality set that sounded tight but looked effortless.

The show promised a selection of Midler’s well-known tunes, and these were drawn from across the performer’s various eras. Aspects of a tear-jerker like From A Distance (God Is Watching Us) are still as relevant now as they were decades ago. Like The Rose, love stories might not run the way we intend.

Through such songs Alcorn showed the purity of her voice, and luminous star power. But you’ll certainly find the bawdier numbers here from Midler’s bathhouse days, as well as some surprise inclusions that seemed quite appropriate for the characters before us.

Amusement is also to be found in the ribald tales of characters Soph and Ernie, which is why the show gets a “Ages 16 and up” rating. Talent is one thing, but persistence is also vital for success. We learned this in the finale, where Alcorn informed us of the long road to this festival.

The packed house here means there’s one more rare opportunity for Adelaide audiences to experience The Divine Miss Bette at 3.00pm on Saturday 15th June.

The Divine Miss Bette
Dunstan Playhouse – Adelaide Festival Centre, King William Road, Adelaide
Performance: Thursday 13 June 2024
Season continues to 15 June 2024
Information and Bookings:

Image: Catherine Alcorn and The Harlettes in The Divine Miss Bette – photo by Claudio Raschella

Review: Jason Whyte