Betty Buckley Shares Heartbreak and Hope in Emotionally Rich Joe’s Pub Concerts | Playbill

Cabaret & Concert News Betty Buckley Shares Heartbreak and Hope in Emotionally Rich Joe’s Pub Concerts

The Tony winner offered six concerts at the intimate venue located within the Public Theater.

Betty Buckley David Andrako

Growing up, my brother and sister would often poke fun at me, saying that I didn’t appreciate pop/rock songs until one of “my singers” covered the tune. And, truth be told, they were probably correct.

Not that I had anything against pop-rock artists—I did enjoy Helen Reddy, Dionne Warwick, The Jackson 5, Cher, and more as a kid—but once I turned 11 or 12, I only listened to the women of the musical theatre and New York cabaret scene whose singing affected me in ways like no other performers. So, please don’t squeal when I confess that I am now a fan of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” thanks to the supreme talents of Betty Buckley, who offered six concerts at her frequent haunt, Joe’s Pub, this past weekend.

I was lucky enough to catch Buckley’s early show Saturday evening, and one can best describe the hour-or-so set as a master class in the art of storytelling through song. And, an art it truly is. In the past decade or so, we have lost several of our greatest interpreters of song—Tony winners Barbara Cook and Elaine Stritch among them—and Buckley seems to have inherited the mantle, showing just how far one can fully immerse herself in a song. Unlike Cook and Stritch, however, Buckley’s taste in music extends far beyond tunes from the musical theatre and the American popular song. In fact, in one of her many welcome chats with the sold-out crowd, Buckley shared how she originally wanted to perform rock songs like Janis Joplin, but her mother wanted her to be in the theatre, while her father was not supportive of his daughter taking either road. “Therein lies the split in my personality,” the Cats Tony winner joked, adding that “all the great music comes from the '60s.”

The Mayfly, Animated Short Film From Betty Buckley, Will Play Tribeca Festival

But getting back to Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” In an intensely focused version of this song that details the end of a relationship, Buckley’s rendition was a soliloquy of heartbreak, an emotionally raw take that displayed all aspects of her voice—the soft whispers, the gentle tones, the evocative growls, and the cries of her biggest belt. I’ve often thought that one cannot be a great singer unless she has lived a certain amount of life and experienced an equal amount of heartbreak. Buckley has lived an expansive and celebrated one, though filled with its own peaks and valleys, and she somehow manages to distill the highs and lows of all her experiences into her singing, which is as emotionally rich as ever. In fact, she similarly turned the Stephen Sondheim classic “Send in the Clowns,” preceded by a solo from musical director Christian Jacob, into its own one-act play. And, no surprise, that the crowd rose en masse after Buckley’s moving delivery of the final lyric, “There ought to be clowns… Well, maybe next year….”

It should be noted, however, the evening’s song list was not limited to elevated torch. The gifted performer kicked off her set with the Irving Berlin gem “It’s a Lovely Day Today” before offering a terrific take on Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman.” Buckley also delivered an almost ethereal, meditative take on the great Stephen Sondheim ballad “Not a Day Goes By” as well as a poignant “Moon River” that evoked the unpredictable journey we call life.

Another of the evening’s standouts was Jason Robert Brown's “Hope,” which the Tony-winning composer wrote the morning after the 2016 presidential election to depict the mix of emotions felt that day. In Buckley’s deft hands, the tune has now become a more hopeful vision of what tomorrow can bring. It is as uplifting as it is sobering, especially when she sings Brown’s beautiful lyric, “So maybe I can substitute ’strength’/ Because I’m strong/ I’m strong enough/ I got through lots of things I didn’t think I could/ And so did you/ I know that’s true."

Betty Buckley David Andrako

Buckley again proved that she is also one of the most generous performers when it comes to sharing the spotlight with her musicians. She introduced her quartet, comprising Christian Jacob on piano, Tony Marino on bass, Jamey Haddad on drums, and Adam Rogers on guitar, at the beginning of the show and again towards the end, giving an especially warm welcome to the newest member of her tight-knit group, Steely Dan guitarist Rogers. Buckley let Rogers demonstrate his impressive skills when she asked him to offer guitar riffs on music by several rock greats, including Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Dave Mason. Full disclosure: this writer has no idea what any of those guitar riffs should sound like, but Buckley was so enchanted by his work that her joy was palpable. She was also similarly praiseworthy of musical director Jacob, who penned every arrangement.

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Buckley closed her set by spreading warmth and joy with a compelling reading of Jacob’s new arrangement of Cordelia’s “Little Life.” And, her encore, Billy Joel’s haunting “And So It Goes,” was particularly moving. As Buckley delivered the lyric “so I will share this room with you and you can have this heart to break,” I realized that is exactly what Buckley had given her audience. For a little over an hour, we all shared a room together, and through Buckley’s mesmerizing interpretations, she broke our hearts a bit, put them back together, broke them again, and offered hope for a brighter future.

It’s a gift of talent that one can only truly experience to its fullest live. As tempting as it is post-pandemic to avoid gathering with groups of people, either in more intimate cabarets or larger venues, one shouldn’t deny the pleasure that is unique to live performance—especially when Betty Buckley comes to town.

Photos: Betty Buckley at Joe's Pub

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