Gregory Michael Castoria
“Bette Midler Already Did This Show”
The Duplex – July 21, 30, August 18
Taking a page, perhaps, from Rufus Wainwright’s recreation of Judy Garland’s 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, Gregory Michael Castoria has come up with a smart, funny, and touching rendering of a classic Bette Midler performance. This is no drag show—Castoria appears in bright male plumage throughout. But he proves himself an able channeler of the Divine Miss M in her prime—capturing every eye-rolling, finger-wagging, wisecracking detail. I was looking forward to this show, and it surpassed my expectations.
Most of the program consists of classic young Midler—the songs she sang at the time she shot to fame in the very early 1970s. Castoria begins and ends with “Friends” (Mark Klingman, Buzzy Linhart), a song Midler debuted in her famous Continental Baths engagements, and the show is packed with material from her earlier albums. (The inclusion of Amanda McBroom’s title song from the 1979 film The Rose is a nod to the star’s somewhat later repertoire.)
Castoria has the Staggering Harlettes, his own version of Midler’s backup girls, a sassy trio consisting of Lauren Stevens, Carly Vernon, and Francesca McGrory. It was wise, I think, of Castoria not to enlist men for these roles. Castoria has a gentle rapport with his trio (and with accompanist Jessica Stewart). The women’s presence casts the show in a softer light—and these fetching femmes undoubtedly provide diversion for any straight men who’ve happened to find themselves at The Duplex. Stevens, Vernon, and McGrory also contribute some pleasing harmonies on certain numbers, including “Lullaby of Broadway” (Harry Warren, Al Dubin).
The show is not a complete blast from the past. Castoria includes some contemporary references, especially in a “Why Bother?” sequence in which he kvetches about things that Midler would likely have kvetched about had they existed in 1971, such as Catherine Zeta-Jones’s Tony Award and Dr. Phil.
No Bette Midler tribute performance would be complete without a spate of Sophie Tucker jokes. There’s house-of-mirrors fun in the layers of impersonation involved in such a routine: Castoria doing Midler doing Tucker. On the night I went, Castoria apparently lost his place momentarily and had to consult his notes. But he turned the glitch to his own advantage by confidently ad-libbing as “Soph”: “I’ll nevah forget it, you know—especially when I’ve got a cheat sheet.” His own amusement at the slip-up, coupled with his ability to maintain character (and composure), further endeared him to an audience that was with him five minutes into the show. The guy knows how to handle a crowd.
And he knows how to sing, too. His natural voice seems sweeter and less crackly than Midler’s, but his reproduction of her phrasing and inflections is spot on. For the most part Castoria shifts effortlessly from his natural tenor into falsetto. The one exception on the night I saw the show was during “Up the Ladder to the Roof” (Frank Wilson, Vincent DiMirco), during which he had some difficulty modulating between the two registers. (To be sure, the song requires major vocal leaps that would challenge any voice.)
Castoria amuses when he impersonates Midler in the comic songs, but it is in the quiet, soulful numbers that he really impresses. Partly it’s the way he uses his hands. He’s clearly studied the Midler mannerisms exhaustively, but he has managed somehow to make them his own. I especially was taken with his graceful depiction of falling feathers during “Birds” (Neil Young). His performance made me consider for the first time just how much the Hawaiian-born Midler utilized elements of hula in her performances. Isn’t that what makes a show like this especially valuable—that it lets you evaluate the artistry of the original in a new light?
For me the highlight of the evening is Castoria’s rendition of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Want to Dance,” in which he, like Midler, holds the audience close for some slow-dance rocking and swooning. I anticipated the delicious outpouring of “baby-baby-baby-baby”s in mid-song, and Castoria doesn’t disappoint. He delivers the phrase just as he sings everything in the performance: with conviction—the quality that distinguishes homage from mere parody.
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.