Eye on Theatre: Betty Buckley Triumphant By JOHN SIMON

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Betty BuckleyCover of Betty Buckley

SIMON_John - headshotAppearing at Feinstein’s at the Hotel Regency, one of our best night clubs, is Betty Buckley, one of our best chanteuses. You would only be able to catch her this week, which may be impossible, but make a mental note to catch her the next time she appears, there or anywhere else.

Of course, “chanteuse” does not do justice to everything she is. She is one of our finest musical comedy actresses, but no slouch either in straight plays. This talented Texan has been in show business for a good many years, becoming better with every passing year. She has been on Broadway and in other theaters many times, has also done some fine movie acting, but musical comedy and cabaret are her meat and potatoes.

She is probably best remembered as Grizabella in the musical “Cats,” and her rendition of the great song “Memory” is etched into the memory of everyone who has heard it—and who hasn’t? Electronics have preserved it for all of us for all time

if we want to hear it from outside our own heads.

She has a wonderful, ever-growing repertoire of songs, some specially written for her, to which she keeps adding, and which she performs in various cabaret venues and concerts. What makes Buckley so great is that she is not only a terrific singer but also a consummate actress, and her songs are not just superlatively sung, they are also inimitably acted out.

Some songs have a built-in story, but for those that haven’t, she creates one. Every song is acted out to perfection, but without any obtruding mannerisms or tricks or performing clichés such as so many nightclub singers use. And in between songs she tells wonderful anecdotes from her rich theatrical and nontheatrical life, or engages in sophisticated chitchat with her audience.

The other day, a man whom she had in tears with one of her more touching numbers, finally cried out “I love you Betty!” and more heartfelt a love declaration was never heard. “I love you, too,” Betty responded, and yes, she truly loves her audience.

And what an audience she has! Celebrities of every sort come to hear her, some even to learn from her renditions. The other evening there was Stephen Holden, the New York Times film and popular music critic, who had already reviewed her enthusiastically on opening night, back this time just for the pleasure of rehearing her. There too was Michael Riedel, the tough, demanding theater columnist of the New York Post, who drops in frequently to catch a bit of Betty in the night.

But let me tell you about  her latest program. It was a charming idea of hers to sing the songs for male singers that she has often heard and envied, with just the gender of the pronouns changed, and in fine new arrangements she has worked out with her new music director and pianist, Christian Jacobs. She has, by the way, a splendid rapport with her musicians, in this case an outstanding drummer and bassist, and, of course, the delightfully nimble-fingered Mr. Jacobs on the keys.

                                                                                                                                                      What were some of the songs? I will list only a few. “My Defenses Are Down,” from “Annie Get Your Gun,” which Betty delivers with a fine cowboy bounce that goes from her voice straight through her body. “I Won’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me,” from “Roberta,” where she is covering no lesser men than Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, and who would receive her warmly declared tribute with indubitable pleasure. In a complete change of mood, she does a heartbreakingly yearning rendition of “Come Back to Me,” from “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” and, frankly, I could listen to her singing this forever and a day.

She is properly come-hitherish in her delivery of “Hey There” from “Pajama Game,” covering the unforgettable John Raitt just as unforgettably. Even a song I don’t particularly care for, “Venice,” from William Finn’s “Elegies,” as she acts out the story in it, emerges as superior music drama. And the sweet “More I Cannot Wish You,” from “Guys and Dolls,” is rendered with all the sweetness Frank Loesser wrote into it, plus a little extra that is Betty Buckley’s own.

I could go on with the complete list, but will add only the evening’s show-stopper, a suite of three songs from “Sweeney Todd’: beautifully flowing into one another are the three very different love songs sung by Tobias to Mrs. Lovett, “Not While I’m Around”; “Johanna,” sung by Anthony to the lovely heroine; and “My Friends,” the sinisterly seductive love song of the demon barber to his murderous razors. Betty has a special feeling for Stephen Sondheim songs, which everybody loves and many singers perform, but no one with greater ardor and insight. The suite brought the entire audience to their feet (it even makes me rhyme) in cheers and applause that did not want to end. 

And neither will you want an evening with Betty Buckley to end. Certainly if I were in charge, it wouldn’t—not while I’m around. 

John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.

To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.

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eHeziEye on Theatre: Betty Buckley Triumphant By JOHN SIMON

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