A radiant Betty Buckley, dressed to the nines and sporting a new, elegant hairstyle, commanded the stage of Maxim's cabaret room for four shows this past weekend (Nov. 22-23). I was fortunate to catch her final performance Saturday night, which kicked off at 11:30 PM. The sold-out crowd in the new, plush cabaret room on 62nd St. and Madison Ave. was treated to an eclectic mix of songs, starting with Buckley's vivacious pairing of "Hello Young Lovers" and "Almost Like Being in Love." BB was in great voice, easily soaring up to the high notes of "I've had a love of my own . . . " A Buckley standard followed, her upbeat version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Unexpected Song," the first of five works from this composer's songbook. After her opening numbers Buckley greeted the crowd and explained that the show was a goodbye to her friends and fans before leaving for a three-month stint in ALW's Music of the Night. Buckley then introduced her jazz quartetBilly Mayes on piano, Jamey Haddad on percussion, Billy Drewes on reeds and Tony Marino on bass. Buckley also introduced a few performers from the hit revival of Chicago who were in the audience for the late show: James Naughton, Denise Faye and Leigh Zimmerman.
Buckley's "Suite of Dreams" came next, which began with a jazz-flavored "Never Never Land" from Peter Pan, followed by Amanda McBroom's touching "Dreamin'," about a housewife who "lives in dreams" to escape her unpleasant reality. It is in songs like "Dreamin'" in which Buckley is at her most compelling, songs which have a character that she can inhabit and bring to life before your eyes. BB was equally compelling during the following song, her "current favorite" tune, Mary Chapin Carpenter's touching "Come On, Come On" about the heartbreak of lost love and the search for a new one.
The first show-stopper of the evening was Buckley's intensely focused reading of Stephen Schwartz's "Meadowlark." The vocally demanding song is from the ill-fated musical The Baker's Wife, which Schwartz wrote with Buckley in mind. Buckley recalled auditioning for the musical nine times; although she didn't land the part, she laughs, "I have since claimed the song as my own." Following "Meadowlark" was a pop tune, Paul Simon's "Train in the Distance," which describes the changing relationship between a man and a woman and concludes by explaining "the thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains." "Train in the Distance" seemed to melt right into Buckley's heartfelt "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
For a change of pace, Buckley got a chance to swing a bit with a rhythmic "Undecided." After, Buckley related that she had recently performed in Australia at the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts. After hearing her performance of Kurt Weill's "September Song," the stage manager at the Festival complimented her performance and said that only a "mature person" can understand the song, which is a rite of passage. Buckley explained, "I was amazed and horrified because I understand it thoroughly," and then launched into her entrancing version, building slowly on the verse and then forcefully singing the familiar refrain--"September, November, And these precious days I'll spend with you . . . "
It was the next portion of the evening that many of her fans were waiting for, the premiere of her renditions of two Andrew Lloyd Webber songs that Buckley will sing during the Music of the Night tour. The first, from Evita, is a song that Buckley "swore I would never sing, but I've been assigned it!" The song was "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," and Buckley delivered a moving, expressive version that was both beautifully sung and deeply felt. It should be a wonderfully theatrical moment during the tour when Buckley will stand center stage, backed by a full orchestra, and let her voice soar. The next tune, another song that Buckley never thought she would sing--"since it was written for a high soprano"--was "All I Ask of You" from The Phantom of the Opera. Buckley admitted that she was having a little trouble with the lyrics--which she felt were a bit schizophrenic--until a friend pointed out that it was actually written as a duet. Although she was still working on her rendition, it, too, promises to be a highlight of the ALW tour.
Buckley closed her set with one of her Sunset Boulevard arias, "With One Look," which elicited a standing ovation from the enthusiastic crowd. She returned to the stage and delivered another show-stopper, her cathartic version of "Memory," from the musical that began her association with Lloyd Webber's music, Cats.
There was a palpable sense of joy in Buckley's performance on Saturday that sent her upbeat tunes soaring, and the contrast made the more-torchlike numbers even more affecting. Be sure to catch Buckley in ALW's Music of the Night, where she will be singing "With One Look," "As If We Never Said Goodbye," "Memory," "I Don't Know How To Love Him," "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" and others.
That's all for now. Happy diva-watching!
-- By Andrew Gans
(My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)