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BROADWAY: Bette Midler back on stage after 40 years

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BROADWAY: Bette Midler back on stage after 40 years
May 13, 2013 11:03 AM

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It’s a good bet most people attending “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers” have no idea who the super Hollywood agent was or why she deserves a show.

But it’s also safe money that most people won’t care. They just want to see Bette Midler on stage. After all, it’s been about 40 years since the Divine Miss M has had a role on Broadway.

The result? She’s very good. But what else would you expect?

Some may say it was risky for her to agree to do this 90-minute, one-woman show. I see their point, but the truth is, her fans are with her. They greet her with thunderous applause and then sit back and enjoy listening to her play this witty, mega-powerful, pot-smoking, foul-mouthed woman tell stories about A-list celebrities.

Written by John Logan (of “Red” fame) and directed by Joe Mantello, the production offers an entertaining escape. You know what you’re in for as soon as you sit down. Displayed on the curtain is a warning sign: “This play contains profanity, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use and gossip.”

For one lucky soul, there is also a bit of audience participation. Those sitting near the front, on the aisle, should be prepared.

The production begins with the song “Freeze Frame” by the J. Geils Band, an appropriate choice since the show takes place in 1981. The setting is the living room in the elegant Beverly Hills home Mengers shared with her husband, the director Jean-Claude Tramont. It’s a beautiful, spacious setting (kudos to designer Scott Pask).

Midler spends most of the night on the couch, by the phone, as Mengers waits to hear from Barbra Streisand.

Early in the play, we learn how they met, how Mengers knew the future Funny Girl would be a star. It wasn’t just because of her voice. It was because at the tiny venue she was playing, she asked to have the light adjusted, so it would hit her face just right. Mengers saw that Streisand wanted everything to be perfect.

The two became close, with Streisand taking her around to various parties. Mengers was hilarious and started making a name for herself.

She began in the business by working in New York City as a receptionist before landing a job at the William Morris Agency. She became persuasive and ferocious. She never heard a “no” that she didn’t think she could turn into a “yes.”

It’s no surprise she ended up in Hollywood. She wanted to be around fame and stars. In the 1970s, she would represent Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Cher, Joan Collins, Burt Reynolds and Nick Nolte, among others. To those in the know, to the Hollywood elite, she was, herself, a star.

Midler delivers all of Mengers’ stories well. She’s at her best sharing Sue’s Five Golden Rules to being a top Hollywood agent. The first? “Never Blow a Deal for Money.”

There are a lot of good times in “I’ll Eat You Last,” but there are a few moments where Mengers becomes sad or disappointed. Mantello approaches these scenes by having Midler simply pause. It’s effective and quite moving.

The audience knows Mengers is hurting inside, but her strength wins out. She is not going to let failure bring her down. She is not going to quit. She presses on.

That’s a smart way to look at things, even if you are not a big-time Hollywood agent.

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