DIVA TALK: Dreamgirls!

News   DIVA TALK: Dreamgirls!
One of the many reasons why Betty Buckley’s concerts are so enjoyable is she openly shares her heart with her audience. She doesn’t come onstage to impress with her vocal prowess, which she does anyway, nor does she strive to display her versatility, which we quickly realize. She simply sings and acts — no, lives — her songs onstage.

One of the many reasons why Betty Buckley’s concerts are so enjoyable is she openly shares her heart with her audience. She doesn’t come onstage to impress with her vocal prowess, which she does anyway, nor does she strive to display her versatility, which we quickly realize. She simply sings and acts — no, lives — her songs onstage.

Buckley’s most recent New York engagement was held on Sept. 19 and 20, the opening of Lincoln Center’s “American Songbook Series” at Alice Tully Hall. Just one week after the U.S. tragedies, Buckley admitted that she assumed the concerts would be canceled, but after the Mayor urged Lincoln Center to continue its programming uninterrupted, the actress/singer learned that the show would go on and began restructuring the evening with her musical director and pianist Kenny Werner. The two strove to create a peaceful, loving environment where the healing could begin.

Buckley’s show began with one of the more clever concert openings I’ve seen. The lights slowly came up to reveal Buckley standing centerstage with Werner seated at the piano. Surrounded by several trees, no other musicians were yet onstage. As she began singing “The Doorway,” a tune Buckley co wrote with Allen Farnham, one musician after another took his seat onstage, and by the end of the song (a fitting tune that spoke of “singing your tears away”), the quintet of musicians were all on board playing their instruments. It was a touching effect; it reminded me of the first act finale of Sunday in the Park with George when the characters onstage form Seurat’s famous painting. Similarly, Buckley and her musicians completed a painting of their own.

Buckley’s concert contained less belty show-stoppers, which would not have seemed fitting considering the recent attacks on the city. However, her show was no less moving than usual, and, in fact, she and her musicians created a sense of community and belonging that swept throughout the vast Lincoln Center theatre. Buckley’s repertoire for the evening contained both familiar and new material. Highlights included a forceful version of “With a Song in My Heart”; Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Come On Come On,” into which the actress still manages to breathe fresh life; Lisa Loeb’s “Falling in Love,” with its haunting refrain of “The time between meeting and finally leaving is sometimes called falling in love”; a touching version of the James Taylor classic “Fire and Rain”; and a melding of “America the Beautiful” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which Buckley sang in beautiful tones. The latter medley closed the evening, but Buckley returned for two encores: her signature tune, “Memory,” and a no-holds-barred version of the pop standard “Come Rain or Come Shine.” It was an evening diva lovers will long remember, a tribute to the human spirit and the talent of one of Broadway’s finest performers.

The complete song list for Buckley’s evening, “Stars and the Moon: An Evening with Betty Buckley” follows:
Act I
“The Doorway”
“With a Song in My Heart”
“The Way You Look Tonight”
“Come On Come On”
“Stars and the Moon”
“Falling in Love”
“Answer Me My Love”
“A Case of You”
“Autumn Leaves”
“Meditation”/ “I Concentrate On You”
“On the Street Where You Live”/ “I Could Have Danced All Night”
Act II
“Amazing Grace”
“An Interesting Person”
“Fire and Rain”
“Sycamore Trees”
“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”
“If I Remember You Right”/ “I Had a King”
“Old Friend”
“America the Beautiful” / “Bridge Over Troubled Water” DREAMGIRLS
What will probably remain the diva event of the season occurred a week ago Monday night at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the 20th anniversary benefit concert of Tom Eyen and Henry Kreiger’s Dreamgirls. Unlike the anniversary concerts of Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George, this concert was not a reunion of the original stars. In fact, none of the leads played his or her role in the original Broadway production, and many had never been in a Dreamgirls company. However, with talent like Lillias White -- who did eventually star as Effie on Broadway -- Audra McDonald, Heather Headley and Norm Lewis, how could one go wrong? The evening, which benefitted the Actors’ Fund of America, began with a speech from Brian Stokes Mitchell, who spoke of the importance of coming together after the recent attacks on our city. In fact, one of the most moving moments of the night came when Mitchell introduced two members of the New York Fire Department who were in the audience. The entire sold-out crowd jumped to its feet and gave New York’s newest heroes a lengthy ovation. Then, as Mitchell said, “the show must go on.” The curtain rose to reveal a full orchestra on the stage, situated on the lit-up staircase used in the production of 42nd Street currently playing the Ford Center. The orchestra was led by Seth Rudetsky, the musician and stand-up comic who was responsible for putting together the evening. A long-time fan of the musical, he was inspired to organize a concert of the show when he heard Lillias White belt the heck out of some of the songs a few years back.

Like the City Center Encores! productions, the cast was not in costumes; most were dressed in some form of black, and a few held scripts, although most were off book. (McDonald carried her script at first, but after a few minutes, tossed it into the wings and performed without it for the remainder of the show.) At times, one did miss the costumes, especially the many different wigs and gowns that the women wear; however, only an ingrate would complain about an evening that was both tremendously exciting and often moving. The big question, of course, is how were the divas at the helm of the show? Each (White, McDonald and Headley), in her own way, was wonderful. What was so enjoyable about the evening was watching three women who are so different from each other, both in acting and vocal styles. White possesses, perhaps, the highest belt range of the three and can riff flawlessly. Her versions of “One Night Only” and “I Am Changing” were two of the highlights of the night, and her vocal flourishes added greatly to the songs. If her “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” wasn’t as thrilling as when I heard her sing it a few years ago at a salute to the songs of Henry Krieger, it was still powerful and fiercely sung. McDonald, too, was impressive as always. Is there any role this woman can’t play? If she’s not ideally suited to the part, she managed to come through and demonstrated an impressive belt that was especially thrilling in her duet with Norm Lewis in “When I First Saw You.” Perhaps the most exciting discovery of the night was realizing that Heather Headley has a terrific knack for comedy. Although I thought she sang wonderfully in Aida, I felt she overacted the role, but in Dreamgirls her performance was dead-on, and she was extremely funny throughout. She also displayed a marvelously high belt . And, as always, Norm Lewis’s creamy tones were a joy to hear. The only vocal disappointment was Billy Porter’s James Thunder Early; although he was quite funny in the role, Porter was obviously having vocal problems that impaired his performance. There were also cameo appearances by several of Broadway’s brightest: Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Patrick Wilson all appeared onstage at some point in the evening.

The most touching moments of the evening were “Family,” the quintet [C.C. (Darius de Haas), Curtis (Lewis), Jimmy (Porter), Deena (McDonald) and Lorrell (Headley)] that tries to reassure Effie that “We are Family” as well as the reunion of Effie with her brother C.C. in the second act. All in all, Dreamgirls in concert was a wonderfully moving evening that demonstrated the strength of the show’s score as well as the tremendous talents that took part in the one-night-only (no pun intended) event. Thankfully, the cast has recorded the show, which will be available from Nonesuch Records. Stay tuned for a release date.

I also caught Susan Lucci’s cabaret debut this past week at New York’s Feinstein’s at the Regency, at Park Avenue and 61st Street. Lucci, one of television’s most acclaimed soap opera stars, was last on a New York stage when she replaced the vacationing Bernadette Peters in the hit revival of Annie Get Your Gun. Lucci is a fine actress with a decent rhythmic sense, but to try to carry an entire evening of pure singing is a mistake. Her voice, which has no vibrato and very little depth of tone, is not the kind you want to hear sing song after song. At this point, she also seems unable to fully bring her formidable acting talent into her song interpretations. Backed by a wonderful jazz band led by Shawn Gough on piano, she fared better with upbeat material, but when she attempted ballads like “Not While I’m Around” or “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man,” the flaws in her voice and her minimal interpretative skills were quite evident. That is not to say that there weren’t a few nice moments from the star who looked radiant. She had fun with Eddie Cooley and John Davenport’s “Fever” and poked fun at her many Emmy losses (she did finally win the coveted award) in an original song by Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia entitled “Winning Isn’t Everything.” Lucci will continue at Feinstein’s through Oct. 13, and the complete song listing for her show follows:
“You Better Love Me”
“That Old Black Magic”
“If I Were a Bell” / “I Can Cook Too”
“They Say It’s Wonderful”
“New York City Blues”
“Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man”
“I’ve Got a Crush on You” / “Come Rain or Come Shine”
“Not While I’m Around”
“Baby Face”/ “Look at that Face” / “That Face”
“It’s All Right With Me”
“Winning Isn’t Everything”
“It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”


That Tony-winning dynamo, Betty Buckley, has just released a new slate of concert performances, which follows:

October 6 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ (with Michael Feinstein)
November 10 at the Naperville North Central College Performing Arts Center in Naperville, IL (with Michael Feinstein)
November 14-18 at the Mohegan Sun Cabaret in Uncasville, CT
November 24 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ (with Michael Feinstein)
December 6 at Abravenal Hall with the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City, UT (Xmas program)
December 7 at the Ellen Eccles Theatre in Logan, UT
December 27 at the Verizon Regional Performing Arts Center in Philadelphia, PA (with Michael Feinstein)
January 4 & 5, 2002 at the Bushnell Auditorium in Hartford, CT
March 15 & 16, 2002 with the North Carolina Symphony in Raleigh, NC
March 30 at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, CA BARBARA COOK
Oct. 9-14 at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, CT
April 12 and 13 with Marilyn Horne at Michigan State University’s Warton Center in MI
April 26 at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA
June 5-9 and June 12-16 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theatre in Washington, DC

Eder in concert:
Oct. 14 at the University of Texas at Austin’s Bass Concert Hall in Austin, TX
Oct. 19 and 20 at the Atlanta Symphony Hall, go to www.atlantasymphony.org
Nov. 3 at the Youngstown Symphony Center in Youngstown, OH, (330) 744 4269
Nov. 16 and 17 at Jacobs Symphony Hall in Jacksonville, FL, (877) 662 6731
Dec. 1 at the State Theatre in Easton, PA (610-252-3132)
Dec. 5 at the Papermill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, (973) 376-4343
Dec. 11 at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA, (617) 266-1492
Dec. 14 and 15 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, (800) 444-1324

The Tony and Olivier Award-winning actress has also just released a whole new slew of concert dates, which follow:

October 10 at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA (“Matters of the Heart”)
February 9, 2002 at the Tilles Center with the Long Island Philharmonic (“Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda”)
February 22-23, 2002 at the Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, NY with the Buffalo Philharmonic (“Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda”)

February 28 at Carnegie Hall in New York, NY (“Coulda Woulda Shoulda”)

Oct. 13 at CSU in Bakersfield
Oct. 19-21 at the Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis
Oct. 24 at the NJPAC in Newark
Oct. 26 at the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, Canada
Nov. 3 at the Keneseth Israel Hall in Philadelphia
Nov. 21-25 at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco
Jan. 4, 2002 at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater
Jan. 6 at the Barbara Mann Hall in Ft. Myers
Jan. 7 at Van Wezel Hall in Sarasota
Jan. 9 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach
Jan. 10 at the City Center in Coral Springs
Apr. 5-6 at the OCPAC in Costa Mesa

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

By Andrew Gans

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