I would know that belt anywhere. Its distinctive timbre and resonance is the trademark of a voice that has wowed audiences with its agility for over forty years. Its possessor has always been noted for her ability to sing seemingly unattainable high notes with considerable ease. But up until last Saturday night, I had never had the privilege of seeing Betty Buckley live in performance. I’ve heard such great things from SarahB and Kari over the past few years, as they turn Betty’s annual gigs at Feinstein’s into the event of the season. One year they went twice in the same evening when the Tony-winning legend was performing two different shows. Much to my delight, the ladies asked me to tag along this year, as Betty returned with a brand new show of all material she had never sung before in public titled For the Love of Broadway.
The venue has fast become one of my favorite places to be in the last couple of months, with memorable evenings spent hearing Kate Baldwin and Tyne Daly. Last Saturday night I hit a trifecta with Ms. Buckley, who was once again working with her trio led by her long-time musical director Kenny Werner. Buckley’s new show is all Broadway music (as most people never want to hear her sing anything else), with an eclectic range from standards to cult favorites to a few contemporary numbers thrown into the mix. Aside from a brand new specialty written for her by John McDaniel and Erik Kornfield called, fittingly, “Belting”, I had heard almost every other song she sang before.
A magnanimous presence, she took the stage and launched into a medley of Rodgers and Hart tunes. It was clear to me instantly why my friends have been raving so rapturously. Betty picks up the microphone and immediately radiates warmth. She goes out of her way to include everyone in the venue including those on her periphery, like a hostess making sure every one of her guests is comfortable. Then she lets the music take over. Her patter was spare and concise – she was there to sing and did she ever. The song takes over her body, whether she is dancing along during an instrumental break or she is holding the microphone away from her to rip into a high note.
Betty loves jazz, and alluded tongue in cheek to those folks who want her to sing Broadway and only Broadway. Her response was the aforementioned specialty “When I Belt” which incorporated that full-throttled voice, with references to the many songs that have become her trademarks – and even a nod to that famed Cats gesture. But she got the last laugh as her entire evening was infused with jazz arrangements by Werner (who plays piano; the other two players were Billy Drewes on reeds/percussion and Tony Marino on bass). So she’s giving us Broadway, but on her terms. Now that’s a star.
I fell under her spell the moment she locked eyes with me during this opening set. The song was “This Can’t Be Love” and the lyric was “But still I love to look in your eyes.” I was sitting to her left right by the stage area, and she stood there and just gazed down with a big smile. I was hers for the next hour.
She jumped from Rodgers and Hart to Rodgers and Hammerstein singing a combination of “We Kiss in the Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I. There were many similar combinations from Golden Age shows. Here she paired “Bewitched” from Pal Joey with “Hey There” from The Pajama Game. While she sang the former, I couldn’t help but wonder why she didn’t play the role in the recent revival. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of anyone putting Come to Me, Bend to Me from Brigadoon with “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific, but there it was in seamless combination.
However, there were some contemporary pieces tossed in for good measure. She did quite well by “I’ve Been Here Before” from Closer Than Ever, but it was her funny and sincere rendition of “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” from Avenue Q that stood out.
She paid homage to Elaine Stritch with the eleven o’clock number from the forgotten Goldilocks, “I Never Know When to Say When,” an introspective bluesy ballad that allowed Buckley to channel many Stritchisms (and also to celebrate Stritch’s recent 85th birthday). For a novelty, she brought up an audience member to be Clark Kent to her Sydney in “You’ve Got Possibilities” from It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman. The night I attended, she chose her pal Michael Buckley (no relation), an online personality, whose eagerness to ham it up distracted from the set rather than contributed to it. On a side note, her younger brother Norman Buckley, a Hollywood director, was on hand and she deservedly gushed over his achievements.
The dramatic apex of the set appears in “If You Go Away” from Jacques Brel, with a heart-tugging reading that could well be definitive. It was the culmination of the lyrical color she had provided in her interpretations all evening – there was something warm but hard-edge. When she sings one of these songs, she will rip your heart out with her uncompromising honesty, but avoids becoming either overly sentimental or maudlin in doing so. It’s the balance that she finds that transforms Betty into a cabaret superstar.
The last number in the set was “Home” from The Wiz, which was unexpectedly moving. I don’t think that I had ever paid attention to the lyric, or perhaps I have never heard a rendition that highlighted the words quite like hers. For an encore she dipped into West Side Story for an understated rendition of “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story. On her way out to sing it, she clutched our Sarah on the top of her head with affection. It was a sight beyond compare; a diva so much in love with her audience.
Betty’s For the Love of Broadway runs until February 27 at Feinstein’s at the Regency. After that, I can only hope her next stop will be Broadway. Strike that, I hope the next stop is the recording studio because she needs to lay down these tracks as soon as possible. Then Broadway. (How about it, Betty Lynn?)