The Divine Miss Bette

The Divine Miss Bette Cabaret Festival 2024Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Catherine Alcorn. Dunstan Playhouse. 13 Jun 2024


From the moment Catherine Alcorn’s hugely bewigged head pokes through the curtains, you know you’re in for a fun night. What you don’t know is that The Divine Miss Bette quickly moves into a remarkably fine-honed theatrical experience that goes far beyond what one expects from a ‘tribute’ show.


There are two levels at work here: Alcorn has studied Bette Midler’s style and mannerisms and worked very hard at emulating them. She has the Midler mince and moue down pat, almost disturbingly so. But behind the spangles, eye flutters and vocal mannerisms, Catherine Alcorn is clearly at work, and every now and then she pops out to let you know that.


The show opens raucously with Friends (from Midler’s 1972 debut album ‘The Divine Miss M’) and in an indication that this will not be religiously Midler, the Staggering Harlettes, also big wigged and sequinned, vibe to The Who’s, Who Are You. Acknowledging her backup singers Misty (Kat Hoyos), Fisty (Chloe Marshall), and Vendetta (Karla Hillam) and band (Musical Director and piano, Benjamin Kiehne, Crick Boue on Bass, Sam Leske on electric and acoustic guitar with Ben Todd on drums), it’s straight into a boogie belter with Glen Miller’s In The Mood – you wait for it to segue into Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy but she stops short; and you know it’s a tease.


The band is restrained, as you know they must be. Even as the Harlettes are pulling moves from the Ike & Tina Review the band is cool, laidback, Sam Leske pulls a lick or two out of the Telecaster, changes guitars without being noticed, then polishes the 70s wah perfectly, but never raises a sweat. Clearly it is not in the bassist’s contract to raise a sweat either. Cool as cucumbers, he and drummer Todd.


Alcorn’s between song patter is what takes this show past tribute and into full music theatre. In her Divine Madness concert video, Midler pays homage to American vaudevillian Sophie Tucker and Alcorn happily intersperses songs with Sophie’s signature phrase “I’ll never forget it you know!” and tells some pretty blue jokes; Alcorn doesn’t resile from these, and they create some pretty funny engagement with the crowd.


In the main, this production is about Bathhouse Bette, the sassy, bawdy woman who played gay bathhouses in the ‘seventies, but every so often, the pensive, passionate Bette appears. Alcorn’s skills are such that the audience has barely finished chuckling at one of her bon mots when they are jolted into introspection with songs such John Prine’s, Hello In There or the Beatles’, In My Life.


The Harlettes take the spotlight for a moment and take on TLC’s, Waterfalls – not the most successful number of the evening, but entertaining nonetheless.

There’s a small break for a costume change; Bette and the Harlettes appear looking like red Christmas ornaments as they sashay across the stage. She baits her audience… most amusingly takes the piss out of The Rose – “I’m sick of singing this! You sing it!” and the audience dutifully does. At this stage they’d do anything for her. From A Distance becomes a serenade from the balcony, and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy finally turns up, interspersed with a rousing rendition of Beyonce’s, Single Ladies.


The close encapsulates the spirit of the show; the curtain comes down, the band keeps playing, then Catherine Alcorn appears as herself, stunning in black. She gives a laden and wonderful speech about how she got here, and the entire audience considers they have just been told it took 12 long years for this show to be accepted into the Cabaret Festival fold. Madness. This show is as assured, as sassy, as capable and as technically adept as it is possible to be. It is also the very spirit of cabaret, and in closing with a beautiful rendition of Wind Beneath My Wings (as herself), Catherine Alcorn earns a standing ovation. It is fitting.


Arna Eyers-White


When: 13 to 15 Jun

Where: Dunstan Playhouse

Bookings: Closed