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Big, Bold, and Beautiful

Barbara & Scott interview Betty Buckley, review Steve Ross at the Stanhope, and catch Rona Munro's plays at the 29th Street Rep and MTC.

Betty Buckley
Tony Award winning singer/actress Betty Buckley is appearing at Feinstein's at the Regency (through November 8) in her new act, titled Journey. We talked with her about the show and the one thing you can count on when you talk to Ms. Buckley is honesty. She's not one to hold things back.

When asked if she puts a club act together to please herself or her audience, she says, "You're kind of trapped. I can't sing something I don't love; I've tried and I can't do it. When you sing in a club like Feinstein's, you're looking into people's eyes. It has to be true for me. But I also have to believe that it's true for them and that there's an essential connection that we share in these songs."

Buckley's musical tastes are wide ranging: She lists among her favorites Cassandra Wilson, Dory Caymmi, Bonnie Rait, Tricia Yearwood, Joni Mitchell, Shirley Horn, and Michael MacDonald. "In a club like Feinstein's, there are expectations," she says, "so you try to stick to the American Songbook. But as a child of the '60s, my idea of standards includes more contemporary songwriters. You try to find a balance."

Her new show "came out of some very lovely musical experiences I had in my car." She explains: "You know that cross country drive you're supposed to make after college? I never did that. But, this year, I bought a horse that lives in Texas -- a championship cutting horse -- and I've been driving down there a lot to see him. Most of the songs in my show were chosen during those drives."

She gives a striking example: "I was driving in Kansas and there were all these Tornado warnings on the radio. The sky was black overheard and it was storming. I put Joni Mitchell's 'Amelia' on in my CD player and, across the horizon, I saw this perfect hallway of golden light just beneath the clouds. In all that storm and rain, there was a golden sun shining out. It was startlingly beautiful. I had a profound experience and I played 'Amelia' over and over again."

Another song is in the show because Buckley drove to Sundance this summer to teach a symposium. There, she met Marilyn and Alan Bergman. "They wrote the lyrics for 'Like a Lover,' a song that awakened my teenage sensuality when I was growing up in Texas," says Buckley, going on to joke that "I really hold them responsible for the impressions they formed in my young mind!" She sings that song in her show as well as "Where Do You Start?" (lyrics also by the Bergmans), which she calls "a perfect song."

Buckley describes her show as a "journey through love songs. Love won, love lost, and finding a sense of self after that. I almost called the show Gorgeous because the songs are so gorgeous."

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Steve Ross
Steve Ross: Top of the Heap

If your fantasy image of New York nightlife includes a classy cabaret room on Fifth Avenue that features a sophisticated, witty entertainer at the piano singing songs about New York -- well, your fantasy has come true. The cabaret room is in the swanky Stanhope Hotel on the Upper East Side, but nothing and and no one is swankier than the urbane fellow now performing in that room: Steve Ross. His new show, My Manhattan, is a musically exciting evening full of songs ranging from the rapturously familiar to the enticingly obscure. With this program, Ross pays loving tribute to a great city that sure can use the love.

When Ross is on stage, he owns the room. His patter, a creamy concoction of fascinating facts and sly asides, has you hanging on his every word; and when he plays and sings, his phrasing displays both a precise understanding of the lyrics and a skill for making them meaningful. He's dryly hilarious with nutty numbers like "The Spider and the Fly" (Murray Grand), the story of two insects immigrating to New York and finding love along the way. When it comes to standards, such as "Autumn in New York" (Vernon Duke), Ross is a master at combining his lush, romantic piano playing with his achingly understated singing.

Steve Ross will be playing on a regular schedule at the Stanhope through the end of this year (with a handful of exceptions). Again, the show is called My Manhattan -- but when he performs, he happily shares the island with everyone.

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Bold Plays

It's your last chance to see Rona Munro's Bold Girls at the 29th Street Rep. The show closes (after having been extended) on November 1. Munro is the Scottish playwright who also wrote Iron, now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II. Both are extraordinary plays about women. On the surface, they're not at all alike except in their artistry and in the acting opportunities they afford gifted actresses.

Susan Barrett and Heidi James in Bold Girls
(Photo © Petra Liebentaz)
Bold Girls takes place in Belfast and examines the lives of four Irish women whose husbands and fathers are either dead or in prison. Belfast, however, is just a metaphor for the struggles women must endure as they summon the strength to survive. Of course, some women fare better than others do. The greatness of this play is that it gives us four wounded souls with at least one serious character flaw apiece, yet at least three of the characters are written and acted so well that you will truly feel as if you know them. Munro invests them with dignity and, more importantly, with depth.

The actress you should track most closely in the play is Susan Barrett. She plays Marie, a young widow with a child who retains a sunny and generous disposition despite the trials and tribulations of her daily life. The recognizable humanity that Barrett brings to the role allows the audience to see Marie as a heroine when, after her comforting vision of the world is shattered, she must once again find her emotional bearings. In the hands of a lesser actress, the character might be viewed by the audience as a simpleton who refuses to deal with reality. The inspiring truth of the matter is that Barrett's Marie accepts reality and then rises above it. Her performance is extraordinary.

In Iron, Munro's more high profile play at MTC, Lisa Emery plays a woman who has been in prison for 15 years (so far) for the murder of her husband. A decade and a half after the fact, her daughter (Jennifer Dundas) finally comes to see her: She wants to reclaim her childhood but she can't remember anything before the murder of her father, and she wants her mother to help. Emery gives a career-making performance as Fay -- a woman who, like Marie in Bold Girls, lives a life of no escape. The play marches relentlessly toward an uncompromising and startling finale.

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