Just to hear Betty Buckley's new opening number--a medley of two Disney tunes, "Just Around the Riverbend" and "Part of That World"- would be reason enough to catch one of her remaining shows (tonight 3/21 at 9 and 11:30 PM; Saturday at 8 and 10 PM) at Maxim's, the plush boite on 62nd and Madison Avenue. Buckley's joyous interpretation of the two songs is spirit-raising--hers and ours. In fact, ever since her reign as Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, Buckley has sung in concert with a palpable sense of joy and an utterly unerring knack for interpreting a lyric. She has always been a moving singer--the Bottom Line concerts in the past decade were always cathartic experiences--but now Buckley has evolved to another level: She doesn't just sing a song, she lives it onstage before your eyes.
Her current program, titled "Songs of Innocence and Experience," has Buckley performing all new material, which would be a daunting task to any performer, but Buckley rises to the challenge. Admittedly, not every song has reached the level of perfection of her encore of "Meadowlark," but Buckley's audiences are always willing to go along for the ride because they know it will be a rewarding experience. And, rest assured there are plenty of gems in what turns out to be a beautiful collection of songs, and Buckley delivers them with her one-in-a-million instrument that spans the range of a delicate whisper to a shattering belt.
The new set contains some classic torch songs, and Buckley jokes that she had resisted singing "torch," but now feels the time is right. After a stirring combination of Stephen Sondheim's "Pretty Women" with "Laura" and "Ruby," Buckley launched into what may be the quintessential torch song, the ultimate song of revenge for anyone who's ever been jilted by a lover--"Cry Me a River"--and she delivered it with the perfect blend of irony and passion.
As might be expected of the Tony Award-winning actress, she shines best on the theatre songs: In her hands they are mini dramas, with a definite beginning, middle and end. Just listen to her version of Sondheim's "The Miller's Son" to see what I mean. Buckley prefaces the song with "Much More" from The Fantasticks, which she sings with a sly smile, and the two songs make a perfect coupling--they are a dramatic statement of wishes and longings that don't always come true. Furthermore, her shadings and vocal nuances in this Sondheim tune are extraordinary--take notice of the way she sings, "a rrrrip in the bustle and a rustle in the hay . . ."
Similarly, combining the jazz classic "Lush Life" with Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Ladies" is an inspired choice, and her interpretation mimics the ache that can often be a part of city living. Other highlights of the set included two songs from Leonard Bernstein's Candide, "Candide's Meditation" and the beautiful ballad "Make Our Garden Grow." Buckley also moved the audience with a tune from Dr. Doolittle, and then she raised the roof with a knockout version of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "Come Rain or Come Shine"
Perhaps Craig Carnelia's "Flight," in a swirling arrangement by Kenny Werner, best expresses Buckley as an artist--one who longs to reach new heights, transcending the commonplace to "lift from the ground till [her] soul is in flight."
I was also able to catch the "By Request" show that followed, where Buckley delivered one show-stopper after another in an evening of songs chosen by the audience. After opening with the aforementioned Disney tunes and then "Come Rain or Come Shine," Buckley showed us exactly why she is one of the most sought-after actresses in the musical theatre. Her set included powerful versions of "Some Enchanted Evening," "Unexpected Song," "As If We Never Said Goodbye," "Old Friend," "Sorry-Grateful," "Not a Day Goes By," "Angel from Montgomery," "Take Another Piece of My Heart," "Over You," "And So It Goes," "Gaviola," "Come On, Come On" and her riveting version of "Memory." For an encore, Buckley's version of "Meadowlark" brought the audience to its feet. During the performance, Buckley commented that she feels about her song collection like some women may feel about their jewelry--she loves to look at her music and is proud of her eclectic repertoire. I thought this was the perfect analogy because Buckley works a song like a jeweler does a piece of jewelry- polishing and refining it until its as perfect as possible. Be sure to catch Buckley at Maxim's this weekend. For reservations, call (212) 751-5111.
More news on the Australian front. . . As we announced last week, the Australian Norma Desmond, Debra Byrne, who currently stars in that country's production of Sunset Boulevard, recently completed recording a solo album of show tunes, and the album will indeed contain her songs from Sunset Boulevard. Titled New Ways to Dream, the album is due in stores next month, and I'll review the recording as soon as I receive a copy. Craig, our down-under correspondent, also supplied us with a bit of history on Byrne, whose life, it seems, has quite a few parallels to the character of Norma D.
Both Debra and "Norma" were stars very young--Norma, of course, a silent screen star, while Debra was a child star on the Australian television show "Young Talent Time," and by the time she was a teen ager, she already had numerous hit records as well as the title of Australia's "Queen of Pop." Debra, like Norma, dropped out of the public eye for a few years: During this time, she battled a drug addiction that was the result of the early death of her mother and prolonged sexual abuse of her grandfather. Debra made her comeback, or should we say "return," when she won the coveted role of Grizabella in the Australian production of Cats. Her recording of "Memory" can be heard on an earlier solo album of hers entitled Caught in the Act that also contains such show tunes as "Tell Me On a Sunday," "Every Day a Little Death" and "I Dreamed a Dream," another song that she premiered in the Australian production of Les Miserables. Byrne's portrayal of Fantine, incidentally, can be heard on the International Recording of the musical, which also stars country singer Gary Morris.
However, her biggest role was to follow--the prized part of Norma Desmond in Sunset, which she won after a series of auditions, beating out such Australian performers as Judi Connelli and Robyn Nevyn.
Continuing in the tradition of the Sunset Boulevard productions around the world, there were as many dramas offstage as on with the Australian production. The first occurred when Byrne collapsed onstage during a preview performance due to an inner ear infection. Her understudy, Suzanne Lee, was not yet sufficiently rehearsed to take over, so it was decided to cancel the rest of the preview plus the next night to allow Byrne to recover. Ironically, many of the members of the preview audience thought Byrne's tumbling down the stairs was part of the show.
The next incident was more tragic, the death of the show's musical director, Brian Stacey, who was killed in a hit-and-run motorcycle accident on the day of the final preview. And, six weeks into the run Byrne needed to take a week's leave from the show to deal with the break-up of her three-year marriage to actor Neil Melville, with Suzanne Lee taking over the role. Currently Maria Mercedes, another Australian performer, plays Monday and Tuesday evenings, and is billed as Byrne's "alternate."
I have seen Byrne perform "With One Look" on an Australian talk show, and even without the make-up, her version of Norma's first-act aria is flawless. Craig writes that her "Norma is misty-eyed, vulnerable and heart-breaking. . .Compared to other Normas, her vocal performance is probably closest to Patti LuPone's, but she does it very much her own way, injecting a lot of her own personality and sense of humor into the role." He also insists that "anyone contemplating the long and expensive plane trip to Melbourne to catch Deb's Norma will find it more than worth the trip...a world-class performance."
Elaine Paige: This Saturday night marks Elaine Paige and the rest of the New York company's final performance in Sunset Boulevard. I will be attending that performance as Paige dons Norma Desmond's turban for the last time, and will report on what promises to be an emotional evening next week. Hope to see many of you there.
Bernadette Peters will be a guest on the "Rosie O'Donnell Show" this Monday, March 24, and she will sing a song to promote her recently released album Sondheim, Etc. Bernadette Peters Live at Carnegie Hall.
Karen Mason continues to dazzle the crowds at Rainbow & Stars with her new cabaret act that includes many songs from her recently released CD Better Days. Mason performs two shows nightly in the posh room atop Rockefeller Center through March 22. For reservations, call (212) 632-5000.
That's all for now. Happy diva-watching!
-- By Andrew Gans
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