When I first moved to Sydney the cabaret scene was very busy dying. Coming from a satellite suburb in tourist town hell Qld, I expected my arrival to be into a bushel of cabaret lounges, jazz bars and burly-q’s. Think what Cher had going on with her club in the movie Burlesque and you get the picture of what I expected the nightlife here to be.
High expectations in retrospect, to be sure, but what I did not expect was what I got – and that was next to nothing! Discount the $80 a head one woman shows of the music theatre stars I obsessed over and there was no nightlife at all for the cabaret-minded.
But things did slowly change thanks to the work of many up and comers. Trevor Ashley (I frequently feel like genuflecting as I write it) began his now legendary Showqueen series at the Supper Club. Notes in Enmore and 505 on Cleveland Street picked up their acts, and a nightclub on Oxford Street called Slide opened its doors to cabaret and variety.
Somewhere at the forefront of this latter charge in the odds of the scene was a young performer named Cath Alcorn equipped with a show called The Divine Miss Bette.
A Bette Midler tribute show sounds like an unlikely vehicle to find success. Miss M’s tone and mannerisms are, to put it mildly, inimitable, and yet, Cath Alcorn has toured Australia to rave reviews, packed houses and overwhelmingly positive audience responses.
“We wanted the show to be like a 70’s show. Most of the songs are from her back catalogue and they’re actually the ones I love singing the most.”
Cath Alcorn in the flesh is warm and open and organised – what the gangstas amongst us would call ‘fierce!’ As I’m speaking to her she’s in the office above Slide multi-tasking between phone calls, a tight schedule and lunch. She’s completely unflustered in a situation that would make me rush into the arms of the nearest barista and provide bad customer service to women with platinum Amex cards.
“So many people just fall in love with the performance space”, says Cath as I take her in. “After the success with last year’s Slide Cabaret Festival [which Cath produced] we’ve really just gone from strength to strength. June is fully booked and the rest of the year is already filling up fast.”
Cath comes from the growingly pervasive mindset in showbiz that you create your own work. Having seen a friend perform a show at Slide she followed suit by producing The Divine Miss Bette to an overwhelming reception. She has since performed the show there monthly and has taken it to Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane – where the audience blew the roof off the building so wild was their response.
“The main thing I have discovered during the course of the run has been that Cath is actually funny” she says. “The first performance I stuck to the script exactly as written – I was just too nervous not to. But since then I’ve become more comfortable in the part.”
“Bette and I are quite similar in the sense that off stage we’re both quite different to our on stage persona. I get quite shocked by swearing and yet on stage I get to bawdy and brassy and now I go off script all the time and I can interact with the audience so easily.”
“This show has been wonderful in the sense that as Bette I’ve been able to create a name as myself as a performer. People love Bette and they love her work, myself included, and I think it’s helped me make a real connection.”
“I close the show with a movie medley in which I sing ‘The Rose’, ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’ and ‘From a Distance’ and I find people are so ready for that moment – people have so many memories connected with Bette’s music.”
Anyone who has seen the show will tell you, it’s more than an impersonation. Cath doesn’t wear a wig or go for caricature value. With sublime vocal styling, humour to burn and a great script by her good friend Peter Cox, she produces a great sound, a great show and a great night out.
“We’re going to New Zealand next as part of the Noosa Long Weekend Festival”, and there I noted with excitement she’ll be sharing the bill with national treasure Debra Byrne. “I’ve never been to New Zealand and I’m so excited to see how the show goes down there.”
I asked Cath what her favourite song in the show was, expecting to hear ‘The Rose or ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’ or another Bette standard – ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ maybe? Instead she quoted a song I had never even heard of, a ballad by John Prine called ‘Hello in There’, which after a few listens on YouTube simply broke my heart!
It’s here that we get the essence of why Cath works in The Divine Miss M. She’s funny and daring and she can belt up a storm – but there’s a great deal of heart in the venture, and it shows.
The Divine Miss Bette is playing at Slide bar monthly and I suggest you hurry to catch it as Cath is going to New York at the end of the year to debut a brand new show and with a voice like hers – who knows where that could lead!