Brighton Fringe 2021
Written and directed by Jonathan Booth and George Strickland, Musical Arrangements by George Strickland and mounted at Sweet Productions’ Old Steine Main venue. Lighting and Stage Management Rosa Sweeting of the SweetVenues team. Till June 27th. Is to tour to Edinburgh and will return to Brighton, Look out for it.
There’s an extraordinary orchestral feel from the keyboard as George Strickland (aka Barry Manilow/Man-I-Blow) introduces Jonathan Booth’s Bette Middler.
And we know we’re in sublime company. We should do because the lighting tells us (thanks SweetVenues’ Rosa Sweeting) and because nine inches (ooh) under that golden wig there’s an ounce of gold in the throat.
Welcome Bette: Bathhouse to Broadway! Written and Performed by Jonathan Booth and George Strickland it’s a perfect homage and just a wiggle of a journey through Middler’s life and times. Musical Arrangements are by Strickland too.
We get an intro that’s our outro too – ‘Friends’ an early 1973 hit which clearly hugs the audience so much you feel she might want to take them home with her. And this audience clearly know all the songs, and sway and sing along when required (often enough) yet are in their 20s. Bette’s touched. I’m touched damnit. And that’s our cue.
‘Damnit’ is a bit of intro to Middler’s distinctive mix of smoky mezzo diva and comedienne. Throughout the show Strickland adroitly ducks the curveball chucked by Booth, the amused butt. It’s not just that Strickland’s the blown man, he’s also the one who trumpets an intro when Booth doesn’t appear from offstage after a brief swig. Three times. The continual quips ‘you won’t have a job at the end of the evening’ and so on are all goofed up by Strickland who resolutely stays English until he occasionally lapses into Barrilow.
There was a famous spat between Manilow and Middler for years and then they collaborated on her most celebrated album Bette Middler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook from 2003. It seems based on that and of course plays with Manilow as only the accompanist who can get fired at any moment. Wicked. Booth and Strickland have both written this show and there’s ad-libbing involved. Their feints and faux-entries, their asides ‘she’s terrible’ says Strickland when Booth’s away, ‘she’s always doing this’ are a delicious part of the routine.
Oh and there’s jokes. Lots. I’ll just add one punchline and you work backwards. ‘Oh thank goodness, I thought you were sitting on the cat!’
So growing up a nice Honolulu-born Jewish girl why does Bette end in a gay bath house singing for the men steaming away with towels over their privates? It just pans out that way, and The Divine Miss M in 1972 launched her career. We’re treated to ‘Do You want to Dance’ with all the shimmies you could blink at, – great acting, the song, is well middling – not in Booth’s rendition, it’s just that Middler didn’t always get distinctive songs to project her uniqueness in. ‘’Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (from Company B)’ I of course an Andrews Sisters standard also released in 1973.
That’s something her 1978 album didn’t quite manage either and will she won’t she sing the worst song from her flop album Thighs and Whispers from 1978? ‘My Knight in Black Leather’ – no, this too is a real title, smokes out its guignol grease from Booth’s delivery. Quite why we didn’t get the magnificent 1977 ‘You’re Movin’ Out Today’ one of Bette’s best (she shared it with Carole Bayer Sager and Bruce Roberts, in different versions) remains a mild mystery. It’s more mainstream but is it memorable! And that spellbinding standard ’When a Man Loves a Woman’ would have been interesting as Booth can voice all these. Still we’ve had ‘Married Men’ which is fun.
We do get brief riffs as in ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ with a rasp of Ethel Merman – just a blast, but it’s enough. And whilst there’s a brief interval, a medley of songs from shows played – for instance ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’ from Fiddler on the Roof and the title song from Hello Dolly! It’s a real medley, a strong interlude.
All through the show we’re treated to Strickland’s frankly astonishing prowess – not as a Barry Man I Blow but well, keyboard player. It’s not just that he handles the digital keyboard with a smorgasbord of registers – Hammond organ, piano, and so on – it’s that he moves effortlessly from register to register with dazzling effect and insouciant glissandi. And this keyboard has chops to it. I have to report this is the finest display of keyboard playing as accompanist I’ve ever heard at a Fringe event, or indeed mainstream one of this kind. It’s dazzling.
It supports Booth’s voice which is multi-layered. So beyond smoky mezzo and badinage Honolulu-Bronxiness Booth has a powerful mezzo instrument, well able to gnarl and rasp Middler’s edges and impersonate wildly beyond the make-up and mere habiting of the role. So when we get the soaring ‘Chapel of Love’ from 1980 and even tongue-in-several cheeks ‘I’m Beautiful’ from 1999, which isn’t sent up tha much because it has a fine lyric line. We end first on the memorable and inclusive 1989 ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ and we’re back with ‘Friends’.
There’s something special in this tribute act. First the singing. Booth has a fine characterful mezzo-style instrument – and this was a last night – which held up well. There’s smokiness with the occasional but not insistent rasp, with brittle asides inhabiting the Middler milieu to the mantle born. Badinage and scenarios between both are an added dimension one doesn’t so often see; and Strickland’s playing is outstanding. Booth’s a fine quick-change artist too. Her feather-boa effect jacket is flounced off in a minute, and the outrageous bikini dazzler and burgundy dress after are all as spangly and glam as any nice gal could hope for. Strickland’s more modestly attired in a quiet subfusc. Finally Booth gets us all to sing along. Despite the masks. This audience seem to know their Middler, which ?Booth finds gratifying. She poses with them all afterwards.
Bette: Bathhouse to Broadway! is to tour to Edinburgh and will return to Brighton, Look out for it. One of the most musically satisfying, funny, filthy and inclusive tribute acts of its kind.