DIVA TALK: Buckley Takes on Rose and Lacey Is Rainbow High

DIVA TALK: Buckley Takes on Rose and Lacey Is Rainbow High BETTY BUCKLEY
I guess the diva news of the week would have to be Betty Buckley's decision to star as Mama Rose in the upcoming production of Gypsy at the Paper Mill Playhouse. It was touch-and-go for awhile as contracts were being negotiated, but now that Buckley has signed, theatre lovers have good reason to rejoice: It should be a thrilling experience to watch Buckley portray one of the most demanding roles in the musical theatre canon. The Tony winner will also get the chance to wrap her voice around such Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim/classics as "Some People," "You'll Never Get Away from Me," "Small World," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Wherever We Go" and, of course, "Rose's Turn."
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BETTY BUCKLEY
I guess the diva news of the week would have to be Betty Buckley's decision to star as Mama Rose in the upcoming production of Gypsy at the Paper Mill Playhouse. It was touch-and-go for awhile as contracts were being negotiated, but now that Buckley has signed, theatre lovers have good reason to rejoice: It should be a thrilling experience to watch Buckley portray one of the most demanding roles in the musical theatre canon. The Tony winner will also get the chance to wrap her voice around such Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim/classics as "Some People," "You'll Never Get Away from Me," "Small World," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Wherever We Go" and, of course, "Rose's Turn."

Gypsy, which also features a book by Arthur Laurents, originally opened on Broadway in 1959 starring the legendary Ethel Merman. Subsequent Broadway revivals have featured Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly as Rose, and both actresses received Tonys for their performances. This new production will open the 1998-99 season at the Paper Mill Playhouse, located in Millburn, New Jersey, and recent home to Stephen Sondheim's Follies, which boasted a cast led by Donna McKechnie, Kaye Ballard, Dee Hoty, Ann Miller, Phyllis Newman and other dazzling ladies.

Buckley enthusiasts will recall that Ms. B starred as Rose in a 1992 production at the Southern Arizona Light Opera Company, but has never performed the role in the Metropolitan area. Buckley did, however, give her fans a glimpse of her performance with a sensational rendition of "Rose's Turn" two seasons ago during her Carnegie Hall concert. It was during the second half of her concert that Buckley paraded three of the musical theatre's somewhat deluded heroines to the audience: Margaret Whiting (singing "When Eve Was Weak" from Carrie), Norma Desmond (singing "With One Look" from Sunset Boulevard) and Mama Rose (singing, of course, "Rose's Turn").

Buckley, Deborah Gibson (cast in the title role) and the rest of the company will begin rehearsals on Thursday, Aug. 20 under Mark (When Pigs Fly) Waldrop's direction. Liza Gennaro, who choreographed the acclaimed Broadway revival of The Most Happy Fella, is set to choreograph here as well, and previews will begin on Sept. 9. The official opening date is scheduled for Sept. 13, and the show will run through Oct. 25. Tickets, which range from $25 to $55, will be available by calling (973) 376-4343 beginning Aug. 24, and the Gypsy performance schedule follows: Wednesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Sunday at 7:30 PM, and matinees on Thursday (2 PM), Saturday (2:30 PM) and Sunday (2 PM).

In other Buckley news: BB was in superb form this past Tuesday evening when she recorded four songs for an upcoming PBS special that will examine the lives of women songwriters in the first half of this century. Buckley was dressed in an elegant black gown -- sporting a new and becoming short hairstyle -- and performed her songs for a small invited audience at The Supper Club on West 47th Street. She delivered beautiful renditions of these classic songs, and I was especially impressed by her musicianship: Buckley has an incredible "ear" and is able to detect if her band makes a small misstep, and she is even more demanding on herself. What's even more impressive about the actress is she is able to imbue each take of the song with the same dramatic intensity as the first. You will delight in her melting and sweet-sounding rendition of Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern's "Just the Way You Look Tonight" as well as her joyous and full-voiced take of the Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh/George Oppenheimer tune, "I Feel a Song Coming On." Buckley was equally wonderful on "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "Have You Forgotten," and her voice -- both passionate and powerful -- remains a wonder.Yours for a Song: The Women of Tin Pan Alley will air on PBS during the winter pledge drive. Stay tuned for broadcast dates.


FLORENCE LACEY
Towards the end of the first half of An Evening with Jerry Herman (currently at the Booth Theatre), Florence Lacey stands center stage, leaning against the grand piano being played by Jerry Herman, and begins singing "If He Walked Into My Life." Lacey begins the ballad quietly, and by the middle of the Mame tune, the audience is completely silent, riveted by her concentrated, emotional delivery. As tears stream down her face, Lacey pours out her voice in the song's climactic lines -- "Would I make the same mistakes if he walked into my life today?/If that boy with the bugle walked into my life today" -- and the audience erupts in a burst of applause. It is the first show-stopping moment of the evening, and the audience's cheers don't subside until the star returns for another curtain call.

Diva lovers probably know Lacey best as the record-holding Evita, the woman who has portrayed the title role of the Tony Award-winning musical more than any other actress. Lacey has headed national and world tours of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, and she was also the last Eva in the show's original Broadway run. For those of who you have not heard Lacey, I would suggest hunting down her fiery Evita recording, and listen to the way she attacks "Rainbow High." It's a thrilling CD that perfectly illustrates the power and vitality of her performances.

But, getting back to her work in the Jerry Herman evening . . . Other highlights of the first half of the program included a medley of songs from Hello, Dolly! that found Lacey singing her wonderful version of "Ribbons Down My Back," which was the vocal highlight of the most recent production of that Jerry Herman musical.

Lacey began Act II with a terrific rendition of "I Don't Want to Know" from one of Herman's short-lived musicals, Dear World. It was a treat to listen to the little-heard verse before her impassioned delivery of this Herman gem that has a Jacques Brel feel to it. Lacey's performance of "Time Heals Everything" was also top-notch, delving deep into the heartache and longing that is the essence of this torch song.

I was particularly taken by Lacey's performance of "I Belong Here," a song that she introduced in the 1979 Broadway production of The Grand Tour. It not only gave her a chance to explore her sweet upper register, but it also let her belt one of the more thrilling notes I've heard in the theatre in awhile: When her voice climbs to emphatically express the lyric, "And let the whole world travel on to a faraway star, but I belong here, I belong here, I belong wherever you are," it is spine-tingling. A gender-switched "Song on the Sand" from La Cage aux Folles found Lacey in a quieter mode, beautifully shading this touching remembrance. I actually noticed the older gentleman to my left take hold of his wife's hand during the middle of this song, and, to me, that's the greatest compliment you could give a performer.

If you have never heard Lacey sing or if you're a fan, be sure to get yourself to the Booth Theatre to hear one of the best theatre voices around: Lacey sings with the precision of an opera singer but with the force and emotional weight that is pure Broadway. Here's what some of the critics have to say about her performance:

Fintan O'Toole in Daily News:
". . .Florence Lacey, on the other hand, is simply and starkly brilliant. She has a voice that loops in breathtaking patterns of pure sound. And she has a superb ability to create the emotions of a song even without the context of the original music. Lacey's precise control and elegant presentation are all the more important because Lee Roy Reams' production is rather basic."

Peter Marks in The New York Times:
". . . Herman, Reams and Ms. Lacey take us chronologically through the composer's work, and it's Ms. Lacey, the most accomplished stylist, who has most of the memorable moments. Her renditions of "I Don't Want to Know" (a personal manifesto in waltz tempo from Dear World) and "I Belong Here" (a soothing sigh from "The Grand Tour") are delicate and touching, as is her smooth handling of "Song on the Sand" from La Cage."

Jan Stuart in Newsday:
"Lacey, vaulting between a lilting soprano and a metallic belter's edge, is on steadiest ground with saloon torchers like "If He Walked Into My Life," which she navigates with show-stopping directness."

David Spencer in Aisle Say:
"[Herman] is assisted in this enterprise by the two performers who have come to be the foremost interpreters of his work, continually hand picked by Mr. Herman for the job: The first is Florence Lacey, a stunningly beautiful Broadway belter who first ingenue'd for Herman in "The Grand Tour" . . . Ms. Lacey herself is enormously controlled and poised, and while the façade is one of cool beauty, the soul that sings is often a blazing furnace. And there are moments of tiny intimacies, when she shares the piano bench with Mr. Herman, that make you realize there's a long standing chaste romance between them. The moments are unwitting, unplanned and lightning brief, but they constitute a naked humanity that is almost achingly sweet. And you wish -- well, I wish, anyway -- that Mr. Reams, as director, had more affinity for that kind of thing. Because it's gold, and more of it -- since the triumvirate are clearly, genuinely devoted to one another -- would turn a grand revue into a great one."


CHITA RIVERA
I received word from a loyal diva watcher who was able to attend Chita Rivera's new show, Chita & All That Jazz, this past weekend in Atlantic City. Backed by a large orchestra and flanked by six male dancers -- Edgard Gallardo, Sean Martin Hingston, Sebastian La Cause, Robert Montano, Richard Montoya & Ariel Stolie -- Chita offered 90 minutes of superb, non-stop entertainment. The evening began with a dance segment that wove together several songs ("Hot Honey Rag," "The Shriner's Ballet") that provided a "Chita history." I thought you would be interested to see the song list from this production.

Overture
"Haven't Stopped Dancing Yet"
"Ran Kan Kan"
"Where Am I Going?"
"Big Spender"
"There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This"
"Little Do They Know"
"So Long Dearie"/"Wherever He Ain't"
"I Don't Want To Know"
"Pain"
"Class"
"Cell Block Tango"
"All That Jazz"
"America"
"Somewhere"
"Let's Make Love"
"Where You Are"
"Spider Woman"
"Me and My Baby"/"Nowadays"
"I'm In Love Again"
"Before The Parade Passes By"


IN OTHER NEWS
Rent original cast member Idina Menzel will release her eagerly awaited solo album on Sept. 15. Titled Still I Can't Be Still (Hollywood Records label), the CD will feature songs composed by Menzel . . . Also in Sept., pop star Toni Braxton will join the cast of Beauty and the Beast as Belle. Braxton begins on Sept. 9 as does James Barbour, who will assume the role of the Beast . . . The Life's Tony winner, Lillias White, will assume the title role in Dinah Was beginning Aug. 10 at the Gramercy Theatre. . . Alix Korey, who last stood by for Betty Buckley in Triumph of Love, is the standby for both Florence Lacey and Lee Roy Reams in An Evening with Jerry Herman. What this diva lover wouldn't give to hear Lacey and Korey belting at the same time!


REMINDERS:

BETTY BUCKLEY
BB will perform at 7:30 and 10 PM on Oct. 30 and 31, and on Nov. 1 show times are 4 PM (the "songs by request" concert) and 8:30 PM. The Bottom Line is located at 15 West 4th Street, and tickets will be on sale at the Bottom Line box office in the near future.

PETULA CLARK
Before Petula Clark begins touring as Norma Desmond in the second national company of Sunset Boulevard, she has a few concerts lined up in the U.S. and in the U.K. First up, is a performance at the Resorts International Hotel (1-800-322-SHOW) in Atlantic City from Sept. 2-7. Then, Clark will perform in the U.K. in the following areas:
Sept. 15 Cheltenham Town Hall (01242 227979)
Sept. 16 Rhyl Pavilion (01745 330000)
Sept. 18 Leamington Spa Royal Spa Centre (01926 334418)
Sept. 19 Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall (01892 530613)
Sept. 20 Worthing Pavilion (01903 820500)
Sept. 21 Reading Hexagon (0118 9606060)
Sept. 23 Bexhill-on-Sea De La Warr Pavilion (01424 787900) DISNEY'S DIVAS
Epcot Center in Walt Disney World will host an array of divas in July and Aug. in a concert series that includes three of Broadway's favorite ladies: Jodi (Crazy for You) Benson, Judy (Chess) Kuhn and Susan (Triumph of Love) Egan. Backed by the Disney Grammy College Orchestra, the concerts are free to anyone who happens to be in the Disney park at that time (entrance to Disney World is approximately $44). Benson is scheduled to perform on July 11 and 12, Judy Kuhn on July 25 and 26 and Susan Egan on Aug. 1 and 2. The mini-concerts will take place four times a day: 4 PM, 5:30 PM, 6:45 PM and 8 PM. Call (407) 824-2222 or (407) 824-4321 for more information; times and singers are subject to change.

DONMAR DIVAS
There will be a four-week season of Divas at the Donmar -- London's Donmar Warehouse, the theatre that first premiered the current incarnation of Cabaret. As previously mentioned, Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway will kick off the season from Aug. 10-22. Following the sister act will be Barbara Cook from Aug. 24-29, and Imelda Staunton and Her Big Band will finish the diva season from Sept. 1-5 .

FLORENCE LACEY
Florence Lacey currently stars on Broadway in An Evening with Jerry Herman, which also stars Lee Roy Reams and the Tony Award-winning composer himself. The musical revue, which traces Herman's Broadway career, is at the Booth Theatre; call Tele-charge at (212) 239-6200 for tickets.

PATTI LuPONE
LuPone will perform in concert on Aug. 28 and 29 at The Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles; call (562) 916-8500.

BERNADETTE PETERS

Aug. 11 in Philadelphia, PA at the Mann Music Center
Sept. 11-12 in Nashville, TN at the Andrew Jackson Hall
Oct. 10 in Spring, TX at the Centrum
Oct. 16-17 in Atlanta, GA at the Rialto Theatre
Feb. 13, 1999 in Birmingham, AL (venue to come)
Feb. 20 in Toledo, OH (venue to come)
April 9-10 in Kansas City, Kansas (venue to come)
Dec. 31 in Colorado Springs, CO (venue to come)

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching!

-- By Andrew Gans
e-mail me at andrew_gans@playbill.com