Hell in a Handbag Productions presents Bette, Live at the Continental Baths with return performances after the success in 2015.
Backed by her trusty sidekick, Barry Manilow, Midler tells the true story through song and banter of a bygone era.
Caitlin Jackson brings Bette into Stage 773 through wit and song this year after first performing in Mary's Attic. Some of her previous credits with Hell in a Handbag include Christmas Dearest, Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer and Miracle! She was also recently spotted in Johnny Drago's Trash at the New American Folk Theatre.
Windy City Times: Hi, Caitlin. You are originally from Indiana?
Caitlin Jackson: I am. I wound up in Chicago because I went to a performing arts high school. I thought it would be like Fame, but it wasn't. I went to the Chicago Academy for the Arts for half a semester.
I kept trying to find better theater after moving from my small town in Lebanon, Indiana, to Indianapolis, then to Chicago. I eventually went to [the University of Illinois at Chicago] and did shows.
WCT: Did you always sing?
CJ: I always considered myself an actor who sings, until recently. All of sudden I am getting cast in musicals, and now people think I am a singer.
WCT: I heard you are singing at [same-sex] weddings.
CJ: I am! I always thought if I would sing it would be in a rock band. It wouldn't have to be perfect and polished. You heard it. It's a little gritty and rock 'n' roll like Bette was back then.
WCT: How did you begin working with Hell in a Handbag Productions in the first place?
CJ: I did a show called Sordid Lives with a company called Ludicrous Theatre. The director knew David Cerda, the managing director. David and Ed Jones from Handbag came to see Sordid Lives. I knew who they were and starstruck. David met me after the show and told me I could get cast in his show and not even have to audition. He was full of crap; he makes me audition for everything! [Laughs] He was just being nice. I struck up a friendship with David and Christmas Dearest came along. I auditioned and that was my first Handbag show. I have done most of their shows ever since because I love them. I found my tribe!
WCT: How hot is the Bette wig?
CJ: It is very hot. I got it at Heads & Threads, which is the best wig store ever. I was desperate to find the right wig. This sad little wig was squished up on the clearance rack. We shook it out and it looks like Bette's hair!
WCT: Do you ever picture the audience wearing towels to not be nervous?
CJ: All the time. I wish everybody was wearing a towel. That would make me divinely happy.
WCT: Did you study Bette's videos?
CJ: Yes. I have always wanted to re-create Bette's bathhouse performances since even before Handbag. Before we did this someone uploaded the full concert. It was her final 1971 bathhouse show. It is on YouTube and 99 percent of the dialogue comes from there.
I watched her old videos and stopped right around The Rose because I didn't want to get too modern with her work. I wanted the old Bette before Disney hadn't got to her. She was dirty back then and said the F-word a lot.
WCT: Do you improv much?
CJ: A lot of it is improv, especially when I mess up.
WCT: How did Barry Manilow stay in the closet back then?
CJ: I don't know because he was a regular at the baths. That was when he hooked up with Bette. Eventually, he wanted his own show and he put together something. He used to have his own show.
WCT: Is it tricky not being a cartoon of Bette?
CJ: It is kind of, because I am doing '70s Bette she was less of a cartoon back then. I do go back and watch old footage because I have a tendency to do Hocus Pocus or something she is doing now.
WCT: I thought you did a great job of not making it too over-the-top.
CJ: Thank you. I am not a drag queen or an impersonator. I am Caitlin. It was more important for me to recreate the moment. It is more of an homage. I am not Bette. I don't sing just like her or look like her.
WCT: There was nuances of her, though.
CJ: That is what I wanted. I don't want a Las Vegas impersonator act.
WCT: Do you have a favorite Bette song that is not in the show?
CJ: Yes"Hello In There," the John Prine song she sings. I want to sing it desperately. We hemmed and hawed about it. It is such a downer.
There is also the song in Beaches. [Sings] "Broken windows and empty hallways," but that was too late.
WCT: "One Monkey Don't Steal No Show" is from her Bathhouse Betty album.
CJ: Yes, and we didn't do that one last year. We did two new songs. That one and "My Boyfriend's Back." Those replaced "Empty Bed Blues" and "Great Balls of Fire." We added some new stuff.
WCT: The show is always changing. Do we think it will come back next year?
CJ: I don't know. We will see how this year goes.
WCT: How do you like the new space?
CJ: I like it. Mary's Attic was bigger. People were further away from the stage and drunker. I think this time people were uncomfortable being vocal about things because we up in each other's face. I kind of love it because I felt like I was in the bathhouses. It is intimate and in our own little world. I dig it!
WCT: What's up next?
CJ: Skooby Don't, for Hell in a Handbag. I play Velva.
WCT: Are you going to lose your glasses and crawl all over the floor?
CJ: "My glasses! I can't see without my glasses!"
Bette lives at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., now through Sept. 10. Tickets are available at Stage773.com or 773-327-5252.
Visit CaitlinRoseJackson.com for more on this budding artist.