In her new show at Feinstein’s at the Loews Regency, the aptly-named Betty Buckley: Broadway by Request, the Tony Award-winning performer is pointedly adhering to what many show-biz mavens consider the best entertainment policy: giving the audience exactly what they want. In the act, directed by Richard Jay-Alexander, Buckley creates her ever-changing nightly repertoire from slips of paper — signed by patrons whom she acknowledges and thanks from the stage — which suggest she sing this or that tune that she’s delivered from stages not only on Broadway but in London or other parts of the country.
Buckley has long had a voice that can send chills up and down one’s spine, including the silvery tones and the high notes that have put factory whistles to shame since she bowed 40 years ago as Martha Jefferson in 1776 as a 21-year-old recent arrival in Manhattan from Texas. Moreover, she’s put aside the Fort Worth accent to strut the kind of diamond-like diction that can cut glass. Equally important, she boasts the sort of acting chops that made her Grizabella in Cats an indelible portrait of tattered dignity and her Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard mesmerizing in its depiction of world-class narcissism.
The voice and the force are still pretty much the same as ever, as is made plain when she deftly moves her hand-held microphone towards her on the softer tones and away from her on the charged ones in fluid moves that are practically choreography. True, that million-dollar ping Buckley once had has diminished and the vibrato is now waving like a flag in a slight breeze, but what she’s still got is what all but a handful of other Great White Way divas only wish they had even 50 percent of.
On opening night, her seemingly impromptu set — including “He Plays the Violin,” a particularly exquisite “Whoever You Are I Love You,” and “Memory” — were each accompanied by lengthy behind-the-scenes stories, sincere recollections, and amusing if barbed reminiscences about associates like Sondheim and Patti LuPone. If these stories came with a downside, it’s that they eventually limited the amount of actual singing Buckley could do in 75 minutes. Meanwhile, the “requests” were smartly book-ended by two songs of her own choosing: “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and “Send in the Clowns” — and one request for “anything” yielded “No One Is Alone,” the song she would have introduced as the Witch in Into the Woods had she and director James Lapine not parted company right before the show’s Broadway bow.
Accompanying Buckley for this run as musical director is the super-knowledgeable and always hilarious Seth Rudetsky. He began the show by showing some unusual movie footage from her past; thereafter, he added the occasional verbal and visual grace note, but otherwise played with all due reticence. In short, he definitely helped give more bang for the Buckley.