Betty Buckley
(© Myriam Santos)
Betty Buckley
(© Myriam Santos)
Over the past few years, Betty Buckley has consistently tried to balance the dual challenges of pleasing audiences and gratifying herself in her cabaret acts, with the result being a re-emphasis on theater material. But to say she's succeeded in accomplishing both goals in Ah Men! The Boys of Broadway, which is playing a four-week engagement at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, is practically an understatement.

Putting together a set of theater songs all originally sung by men might, in a lesser artist's hands (and exquisite voice) be little more than a gimmick --or worse yet, a disastrous miscalculation. Instead, the resulting 75-minute show is perhaps her finest outing ever.

Buckley has rarely seemed more relaxed on an opening night or so joyously connected to her material. And while audiences have certainly taken pleasure in hearing her reprise her greatest hits in her more recent shows, there's an unbridled joy in listening to her tackle completely new additions to her repertoire.

If you tried to guess the song list -- some chosen by her new musical consultant Eric Stern and many brilliantly arranged by her new pianist Christian Jacob -- I suspect you'd be surprised more often than not. Personally, I was thrilled with the inclusion of William Finn's "Venice" (from Elegies, in which she starred Off-Broadway), taken aback -- in a good way -- by a decidedly "fun" version of "My Defenses Are Down," and practically teary-eyed as she concluded "More I Cannot Wish You." (On the other hand, I kind of figured she might try her hand at Pippin's "Corner of the Sky," given her long history with the show, and I was right.)

While snippets of some of the theater world's most famous belt-it-to-the-rafter numbers (such as "Soliloquy") are included in a hilarious piece of special material conceived by Stern and Eric Kornfeld, Buckley has opted to spotlight some more gently romantic tunes, including gorgeous takes on "Song on the Sand," "Younger than Springtime," and, especially "Maria" (which is preceded by a delightful tale of her teenaged obsession with West Side Story and a wonderfully full-bodied take on "The Jet Song").

Buckley's dedication to exploring the jazzier side of her personality hasn't been completely abandoned either, as evidenced in the original arrangements for "On the Street Where You Live," "Come Back to Me," and "Hey There," all of which bring freshness to these beloved chestnuts.

Nor has she forgone another chance to perform the works of Stephen Sondheim, and a suite of three songs from Sweeney Todd -- Tobias' "Not While I'm Around," Antony's "Johanna," and Sweeney's "My Friends" -- shows off Buckley's skills as both vocalist and actress to truly extraordinary effect. Say Amen!