Tribute shows are curious things. At their worst, they ride on a legendary artist’s coattails to exploit an audience’s warm feelings of nostalgia. At their best they pay tribute by conjuring up a sense of that artist’s magic and offer some kind of new perspective on their work.
Sydney performer Catherine Alcorn’s Bette Midler tribute falls firmly into the second camp. It’s largely because Alcorn has got a personality and voice so big that her own spirit shines through even while channelling Midler. There’s a knowing wink in her show – she’s not trying to fool us into thinking we’re watching the real Miss M, but a star in her own right playing a character.
The Divine Miss Bette has been touring the country for quite a few years now and played the US earlier this year. This marks the first time it’s played the Sydney Opera House and it’s now a well-oiled machine that still has a sense of spontaneity and play; Alcorn is so comfortable on stage and in Midler’s skin, she’s able to quip back at her audience in character and force them to scream their approval whenever she wants.
It’s a show, she says, about hits, glitz and tits, and she delivers three for three. She doesn’t look exactly like Midler, but she’s got the trademark fast walk and the cartoonish facial expressions. She milks them for all their worth and it’s absolutely hilarious.
When she speaks, you could close your eyes and believe it were Midler – she’s got the cadences, the twang and the timing in delivering a smutty joke. Her singing voice is a little further away from Midler’s, but arguably better; less brittle and with a warmer, more rounded tone. When she gets into the ferocious belting of ‘Stay With Me, Baby’, she abandons Midler’s sound and slides into her own, which is completely satisfying.
Supported by a tight and rocking band led by David J Andrew and with Kirby Burgess and Phoebe Panaretos as her backing vocalists and dancers, Alcorn storms through all the biggest hits: ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’, ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’, ‘Miss Otis Regrets’ and ‘The Rose’. And somehow, she manages to sing ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’ so beautifully you won’t find yourself wincing. The only other singer to manage that is Miss M herself.