Cabaret


On the Cabaret and Concert Path ... .
Betty Buckley and Band: Ah, Men: The Boys of Broadway
Feinstein's at Loews Regency, NYC

by Rob Lester

Betty Buckley
Betty Buckley
Photo: Myriam Santos
The Equal Rights Amendment might itself be amended to include the trend-bucking Betty Buckley who doesn't just ask why a woman can't sing the songs of a man, but goes ahead and sings them and conquers them—and her audience—in her new show. She's holding court at Feinstein's at Loews Regency on Manhattan's East side. The centerpiece tour de force of the act borrows the melody of My Fair Lady's misogynist rant, "A Hymn to Him," wherein an irritated Henry Higgins asks, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" With the music adapted by Eric Stern and with an entirely new and clever lyric by Eric Kornfeld, the equally feisty and cutely ornery Buckley states her case: "For a chance to play Billy Bigelow, I'd cut off my hair ... "/ "As L'il Abner, I'd be too big for my britches ... ". Between debate points in the new lyric, she offers convincing delights, such as a chunk of The Music Man's tongue-twistingly tricky testimonial about "Trouble," reeled off with no trouble whatsoever, or challenging gender assignments for singing or casting, referencing "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof.

Buckley simply raises the roof with her powerful pipes, testing the now not testosterone-only Broadway songbag. She does so with a smile as she approaches, in a casual and friendly manner, then plants her feet and nails it, West Side Story's "Jet Song," soaring through like gangbusters. She recalls strutting around her driveway to this score, one of the first she fell in love with while growing up, until her father would bring her back to reality by ordering, "Come on, Betty Lynn, get in the car. The Jets are going to church." And she'd continue the melody in her head, adding words about the Jets taking communion. In taking on one of the more sensitive lyrics written for men, with a mesmerizing "Maria" from the same score, the nuances, vulnerability and scaled-back emotion in her unique voice are on full display. On the more down-to-earth side, she quips about that song: "What girl wouldn't love a boy who sings her name over and over?" By this rather early point in her Ah, Men: The Boys of Broadway performance, I am totally in the zone because she is, and because she shows her voice to be in fine shape, her focus on target, her attitude relaxed, gracious and grateful, and nothing is being phoned in. And the voice's powerhouse effects are used judiciously: not overwhelming or indiscriminate, not parsed out in a miserly or careful way. There's variety with ethereal and hypnotic higher tones and guts when the lyric calls for guts.

I've been to numerous Betty Buckley nights where some folks had the kind of reservations you don't make by phone; some dyed-in-the-wool Broadway music fans are disappointed when her sets eschew show tunes and genre-hop to jazz, folk and pop, less "accessible" arrangements and esoteric material with long, exploratory instrumental passages. There have been nights when her face was glued to sheet music spread out on music stands. I saw her years ago at The Bottom Line when she was having vocal issues and had to cut all the belted songs. I've always admired her for trying new things rather than have evenings dominated by the big Buckley Broadway roles, thrilling though those songs can be. Here, we have the best of both worlds: the world of Broadway, but songs she hasn't presented before, and with a purpose. The concept of a female singing male songs (or, often, vice versa) has been done before, but it does not cloy or become a cheap, running-out-of-steam gimmick here. It can be revelatory, refreshing, and let us think about how male and female characters are presented or "allowed" to behave and express themselves in musical theatre. But Betty lets us do a lot of the thinking, rather than preach or cavil. In a major highlight, she presents songs of three very different male characters from the same musical, Sweeney Todd, talking, too, about three different kinds of love. "And Sweeney Todd is in love with ... revenge," she succinctly states, before her suite including the sweet "Not While I'm Around" and the fervent "Johanna" end with Sweeney's chilling reunion with his barber blades, addressed as "My Friends." Buckley slides in and out of the characters in the blink of an eye, ending as a Sweeney who engenders both fear and insight, her acting skills sharp as we hear and consider each phrase clearly, the intensity never letting up, but building.

Getting likeably chatty, and quite relevant to the topic, she discusses her "most fun" experience in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (later known simply as Drood), the piece framed as a British music hall entertainment with her as a woman doing the titular trouser role. And she doesn't make her reference points totally about heterosexual man/woman relationships. She sings "Venice," a number from William Finn's Elegies song cycle (which she appeared in, covering other numbers, but coveting this one about gay male friends). She also acknowledges that some of the gay men in the audience might have found John Kerr in the movie version of South Pacific just as "dreamy" as she did. This cues "Younger Than Springtime," which, at times, she seemed to be in this late-set Saturday performance. Joyful, gregarious, very approachable, energized, making strong eye contact with all parts of the audience, this is no diva exercise or at-arm's-length performance. Although Buckley finds many moments to engage the audience directly, she also takes some moments to, seemingly, go inside herself. During some instrumental breaks, her eyes are closed, sometimes she sways to the music, with a glowing smile aimed at her talented band. Christian Jacob is at the piano, Peter Barshay is on bass, and Anthony Pinciotti on drums.

Pinciotti is also on some tracks of Bootleg: Boardmixes from the Road, her CD of nine fine miscellaneous live performances that's at the welcoming podium at Feinstein's and for sale on the way out. Released last year by Practical Magic Productions, Boardmixes ... is a mixed bag of all kinds of music, dissimilar to this engagement, but similar in the sense that it captures her commitment to material and some intense and serious singing, thoughtful acting, heartbreak and celebratory moods. Perhaps the Buckley approach can be said to be neatly summed up by the title of the first track, "Honest Emotion."

In person—and there's nothing like seeing this magnetic performer in a small venue at her best, as she is in this engagement—the emotion and presences are dazzling and disarming.

Feinstein's at Loews Regency is within the hotel located on Park Avenue at East 61 Street, Betty Buckley continues through October 29, with two sets on Fridays and Saturdays. See www.FeinsteinsatLoewsRegency.com for full schedule and prices.


COMING ATTRACTIONS IN THIS COLUMN:

Marilyn Maye will present a tribute to composer-lyricist Jerry Herman on his 80th year. We'll be looking at that and three other Herman salutes going on around town: Jason Graae is currently at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in the West Bank Cafe reprising his Perfect Hermany, which is also his new CD. (Having caught the second performance, I can say the sweet and sassy show is a real audience-pleaser and works like a lucky charm, as he works the audience, responsing to "in the moment" happenings. A full review will follow for this act which can be seen Monday and Tuesday, October 24 and 25.) The Sheet Music Society's November 12 Saturday afternoon meeting is a hats-off-to-Herman event, coordinated by and featuring Richard Skipper. He'll do similar honors for the honoring to be done at the Triad, on November 28. Both also include Lee Roy Reams.

And the next column will put the spotlight on the annual Cabaret Convention concerts, presented by the Mabel Mercer Foundation, held at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater. The October 20-21-22 nights, which are at 6 pm, feature longtime cabaret regulars and some younger people carrying the torch for the American Songbook, such as the just-turned-twenty Broadway-experienced big band singer Nicolas King and Jennifer Sheehan, who is picking up not one but two special awards. Also announced are Christine Ebersole, KT Sullivan, Andrea Marcovicci, Steve Ross, Karen Mason, Karen Oberlin, Amra-Faye Wright (Chicago), and the aforementioned Marilyn Maye, plus many more. Seats are $25, $50 and $100. See www.MabelMercer.org for a full list.