A&E theater: Island City Gets Mixed Results with ‘Midler and Manilow’

Credit: George Wentzler

 If you love the music of Bette Midler and Barry Manilow, read no further and reserve your tickets today for “Bette & Barry: From Bathhouse to Broadway,” playing at Island City Stage.

You won’t be disappointed with a two-hour cabaret that serves up all the biggest hits from both stars…and then some.

If you are looking for an evening of musical theater, perhaps the show billed as “the concert that never was,” you may be challenged to find it in writer/director Michael Leeds’ thin script.

The concept for the show arose from a suggestion from one of the Wilton Manors-based theater’s board members to recreate the last performance Midler performed at New York City’s Continental Baths in 1971. Artistic director Andy Rogow even explored the possibility of performing the show in one of the local bathhouses, but learned women would be denied admission. Leeds came up with the idea of a fictional “reunion” between Midler and her former musical director and pianist.

 Here’s where things get confusing: Stars Mallory Newbro and Michael Ursua don’t really sound like Midler and Manilow and they definitely don’t look them, even in whispy ‘70s style wigs and lots of rhinestones and sequins. But, we learn in the opening minutes of the performance they’re not really supposed to be Midler and Manilow any way. “Bette & Barry” is not quite the “show within a show” but it’s never crystal clear why Newbro and Ursua are even there in the first place performing that show.

 Leeds works in lots of jokes—Midler’s famous tributes to bawdy Jewish comedian Sophie Tucker, some hilarious audience participation in “Leader of the Pack,” and cleverly reworded lyrics to “Hello, Dolly!” (He has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway history.) But, hampered by the cheesy wigs, costumes and challenging concept, “Bette & Barry” seems more suited for cruise ship or theme park audiences.

 When it comes to the music, however, “Bette & Barry” is an unqualified success (see first paragraph). Michael Ursua is not only a talented actor, singer and pianist, he pulls extra duty as musical director. His arrangements and seamless medleys drive the show, highlighted by a goosebump-inducing, four-part a cappella arrangement of “The Rose” that closes the first act. 

Carbonell winner Newbro is simply a star. She shines throughout, both vocally and theatrically, milking every sentimental moment while offering plenty of well-measured comedic relief. Newbro is backed up by two “Harlettes,” Sabrina Lynn Gore with her smoky alto voice and newcomer Gaby Tortoledo. Some tweaks at the soundboard should improve the balance of their harmonies in “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and other Midler ‘40s faves.

The combo of Ursua, bassist Rupert Ziawinski and drummer Julie Jacobs never overpower the singers and even get to throw out some solo licks later in the show. And, thanks to the musical performances and the stylish set from Ardean Landhuis, the Wilton Theater Factory is successfully transformed into a swanky night club for two hours. For nearly the entire sold out audience, that was enough.

 

Island City Stage presents “Bette & Barry: From Bathhouse to Broadway” through Feb. 10 at Wilton Theater Factory, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors. Tickets are $40 at IslandCityStage.org.


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