Betty Buckley Sings Story Songs at the Café Carlyle
The Tony-winning Broadway veteran plays sing and tell.
Betty Buckley wants to tell you a story. At least, that is the stated purpose of her return engagement at the Café Carlyle, which is called Story Songs. The evening shares a name with Buckley's 2017 album, and features several of the same songs. While Buckley is a charming performer with a distinctively sweet voice, it's not always clear what story she is trying to tell.
The actor who was the first on Broadway to play Grizabella in Cats is most comfortable when interpreting songs that present a complete story on their own, allowing the character to exit the stage and never be heard from again. "They're my favorite kind of roles," Buckley says before delivering a lovely rendition of "Chanson" from The Baker's Wife. Buckley's French accent is en point, and she sings the song like a comforting lullaby that portends beautiful dreams.
From dreams to nightmares, Buckley later sings a succession of four numbers that encapsulate the melancholy of liberals in Trump's America. Three of them are by Jason Robert Brown: "A Song About Your Gun" (about gun violence), "Cassandra" (about how no one listens to smart women), and "Hope" (which Brown penned the morning after the 2016 election). The fourth number is Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," a perennial musical take on bigotry. Buckley sensitively performs all of these songs for a blue world, but I'm very much hoping that she can retire the set this coming November and replace it with a rollicking rendition of "Happy Days Are Here Again" — because this story is getting old.
Some of the arrangements Buckley has cooked up with music director Christian Jacob are truly horrendous, like the jazzy rendition of "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" from Oklahoma! that she sings at the top of the show. The piano riffs overpower the vocals as Buckley fingers invisible fringe in the air in front of her. It's a bad omen for the rest of the show.
We can hear the melody and lyrics push against such unnatural treatment in the similarly ham-handed arrangement of "Before the Parade Passes By" from Hello, Dolly!, which attempts to force a march into a smooth jazz beat. The result is a song removed from its original context, in which the story (about a widow reclaiming joy and purpose in her life) blows away in a breezy groove.
This is unfortunate, because Buckley is an undeniably gifted musical storyteller. That fact hits us like a shot between the eyes during the highlight of the evening, a song Joe Iconis wrote for Buckley called "Old Flame," about a woman who threatens an ex-boyfriend with a gun and justifies this behavior with platitudes she learned from Oprah. The song contains echoes of both Weimar cabaret and Ennio Morricone, and reinforces the Be More Chill composer's status as one of the most exciting musical theater writers working today. Buckley acts the number beautifully. It's funny, it tells a story, and it momentarily transports us outside of the Café Carlyle. In short, it contains everything that this evening too often lacks.
There are other bright spots: Buckley sings the world premiere of a new song she has co-written with Jacob called "Elaine Stritch Is My Guardian Angel." It's an up-tempo bop, and the to-the-point lyrics (by Buckley) really help us imagine Stritch critiquing Buckley from the Carlyle bar. Guitarist Oz Noy performs an entrancing psychedelic lead-in to Billy Joel's "And So It Goes," which Buckley performs with wistful sincerity. Finally, we hear an example of an experimental arrangement that pays off.
Missteps aside, Buckley is a Broadway legend whose distinctive voice is always worth a listen, especially when she can get her story straight.