BetteBack April 1, 1975: Review Of Preview Of “Clams On The Half Shell Revue” Before NYC

The Evening Bulletin
April 1, 1975
By Matt Mansker

Broadway ought to be girding for the pearl of its season, for Bette Midler‘s “Clams On The Half Shell Revue” will open there later this month to the certain bedazzlement of La Big Apple. The show, which began a preview run of a week last night at the Erlanger, [in Philadelphia] is a delicious concoction – lavish and brilliantly mounted; rich in atmosphere and antic uplift; here uproarious, there haunting.

The crux of the magic is that “Clams On The Half Shell” places Bette Midler, on the boards again after a year’s layoff, in an ideal theatrical environment, one which beautifully underscores her camp-kitsch aura while drawing out the superb substance of her talents as a singer and comedian. If anything, Miss M is a stronger performer than before, having stylized herself to a point where she radiates a full-blown identity without having to resort to any frantic oversell, although the smooth direction and chorography of Joe Layton must be acknowledged.

Shapely, aglow and thoroughly piquant, Miss M is an impeccable delight, weather hatched from a giant clam shell for a wildly kinetic parody of a South Seas tune or seated in the purple palm of a mechanized King-Kong-atop-the-Empire State Building for an absurd “Lullaby Of Broadway.” And when she minces across the stage in an awkward skitter of spiked heels, she is the trampy epitome of trash-to-tinsel, the B-girl gone uppity, and a perfect fourth to her soul-sister trio of hip-tilting harmonizers, The Harlettes.

Still, the revue might benefit from some paring-down and tightening-up in the first act, for it wasn’t until after intermission that Bette began to set last night’s sold-out house on its ears. Following Lionel Hampton‘s rave-up vibe-drums and-vocal segment with this orchestra, she came back with a wealth of zingy patter – including two very bawdy but very funny jokes attributed to Sophie Tucker – and riveting versions of Tom Waits’ “Captain Ahab,” Phoebe Show’s “I Don’t Want The Night To End,” and John Prine’s “Hello In There.”

Indeed, apart from all her high-humored energy, Bette Midler interprets such moody balladry with a breathy bittersweet fragility, a loving vulnerability that raises goose bumps (when she’s not raising hell with such tempos as David Bowe’s “Young Americans,” or Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back). Unquestionably, she has matured into a great pop singer.

Beyond the performances and the music. Tony Walton‘s costumes are glittery, diaphanous and somehow never a distraction, while his settings are varied and remarkably effective, particularly a darkened barroom tableau which finds Bette cutting-up and indulging in a sad series of saloon songs while three stock-still male patrons pay her no mind. And the opening scene, with the Michael Powell gospel Ensemble delivering a magnificent and mournful “Old Man River” before Bette-in-the-clamshell hilariously reverses the mood, is played before a sumptuous riverboat backdrop and amounts to a splendid introductory eyeful.

Aaron Russo, in association with Larry Magid, presentation of a musical revue in two acts directed and choreographed by Joe Layton, settings and costumes Tony Walton; Lighting design, Beverly Emmons; sound, Stan Miller; musical director, Don York: orchestrations, James Haskell. Opened March 31, ’75, at the Erlanger Theatre, Philadelphia; $15 top.

With Bette Midler, Lionel Hampton, the Harlettes (Charlotte Crossley, Robin Grean, Sharon Redd), Michael Powell Ensemble (Michael Powell, Charlene Rocks, Doretha Doctor, Jeannie Paige, Barbara Rolle, Ricardo Portlette, Joey Coleman, Vinson Cunningham, Shirley Underwood, Lee Roy Cooks, Norman P. Hawkins), Richie Renikoff, guitar; Ken Bichel, keyboards; Rasan Mfalme, bass; John Wilcox, drums.

“Bette Midler’s Clams on the Half Shell Revue” opens at the Minskoff on Broadway Monday (14) after one New York preview Saturday (12). It’s a big show with a big talent.

Midler’s back bigger, bouncier and brassier, impressively demonstrating her crown-creaming skill as both singer and comedienne. She is dynamic as jazz, soul and pop diva and anything-for-a-laugh clown.

With all kind of song, old and new, from various sources, plus both prepared and ad lib standup and sitdown gags, she gives a brilliant performance here.

If Midler’s an unusual hybrid, so’s this Broadway project. It starts startlingly with an “Oklahoma!” overture. The curtain rises on what could be a stock company “Show Boat,” but the “Old Man River” singers pull in first a netful of small clam shells and then a huge one. It opens to reveal, like the pearl in an oyster, coyly-posed Midler. That ex-Hawaiian, in hula skirt fringe, comes out of her shell to shimmy and shake through a campy “Moon of Manakoora.”

She is then summarily dumped back into the shell by dockhands, and that’s virtually the only time during two hours-plus that Midler clams up.

Though she’s abetted by “guest star” Lionel Hampton, three Harlettes, 11 Michael Powell ensemble singers, an orchestra under Don York’s spirited direction that commutes from the pit in the first half to the stage in the second, some manikins and one king (Kong)-size gorilla, Midler risks overexposure through both skimpy costumes and overplentiful spotlight time.

She’s visible and audible virtually nonstop, except when Hampton gets a brief, but effective second-act opportunity to do his vibes-drums-vocal thing (after which he’s awkwardly reduced to lurking in the shadows as little more than just another sideman).

If there’s a lack of change of personnel, there’s no lack of change of pace. A whatzit? Despite its use of “revue” in the title, it’s a slap happy happening that keeps cueing fond remembrances of everything from old-fashioned Broadway and Hollywood musicals to movie house stage shows, nightery nights, rock concerts and college proms.

This rather chaotic grabbag impression, zestfully supervised (with mostly Motown choreography) by Joe Layton, is enhanced by Tony Walton’s preposterously ponderous scenic effects, including gigantic dangling puppet tap dancers, a stage-filling jukebox, a shlock barroom and an Empire State Building that descends floor by floor until Midler’s revealed at the top in a mechanical King Kong’s loving grasp.

Midler abruptly ”“ but successfully ”“ shuttles between raunchy gags and even poignant songs, including an affecting number about lonely oldsters.

There’s too much of almost everything, but most of the mostly youngish, Philly customers have no sign of satiety. The uninhibited vocabulary could disconcert some.

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