Iconic singer Bette Midler cut her teeth at New York City’s Continental Baths, earning the nickname “Bathhouse Betty” and an adoring legion of LGBTQ fans. In an impersonation honed over the last five years, performer Caitlin Jackson expertly captures the exuberance, confidence, and devil-may-care sex appeal of the Divine Miss M in her formative years. But her talent can’t redeem a poorly constructed and written holiday revue.
This Hell in a Handbag Productions show, adapted by Jackson and artistic director David Cerda and directed by Jackson and Marc Lewallen, is set in the early 1970s with a young Midler joking, “This is my 800th farewell appearance here at the Continental Baths.” She’s accompanied on keys by a famous artist (musical director Tommy Ross) who can’t be named for threat of legal action (hint: he has Fanilows), so he’s called “Tommy” for all intents and purposes. While it’s clear jokes, song choices, and costumes are heavily inspired by YouTube footage of Midler performing at the baths, Jackson makes the performance her own with charisma and authenticity.
Such a practiced interpretation of Midler feels out of place amidst uneven, stop-and-start pacing and grating camp. Either a more straightforward tribute concert—with much tighter between-song banter and more layered instrumentals—or a more in-depth character study would be a stronger vehicle for Jackson’s lead. Kitschy holiday shtick, juxtaposed against stirring emotional ballads (“I Shall Be Released” is a standout), grows tiresome and ultimately falls flat. v