Betty Buckley has chops that can blow the roof off a joint or break your heart, and not infrequently both at the same time. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen her at the height of her fame as a Broadway belter of the first magnitude and her transition to nightclub chanteuse casting a spell over a few dozen people in an intimate boîte. Coming off a grueling but triumphant national tour of Hello, Dolly!, she has returned to the swank cush of the Café Carlyle following a two-year hiatus, and she’s better than ever.
This new program is titled, simply, “Story Songs,” and it’s one of her best. Not surprisingly for an actress who made her Broadway debut 51 years ago (!) as Martha Jefferson in 1776 (singing the not-made-for-ingenues “He Plays the Violin”), Buckley has an affinity for songs with a narrative. Over the years, she’s relaxed into an irrepressible storyteller, seducing her audience on a shared journey.
One of the rewards of watching an artist develop over time comes from the pleasure of seeing how taste changes with wisdom, and how that change is reflected in the performance. Near the end of a very rich set, Buckley sings Billy Joel’s beautiful ballad “And So It Goes,” reconfiguring his youthful lament into the deeper reflection of, as she calls herself, a “woman of a certain age.”
The performance also glows in her generosity with the best ensemble she’s ever had, now fully in tune with her. On this song, the guitarist Oz Noy creates a gorgeous dreamscape of rue that frames the lyric with an exquisite, almost unearthly, tenderness. Similarly, her longtime music director and pianist Christian Jacob takes us on a flight that sets us up for the “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s anti-hate anthem from South Pacific. (James Taylor has a heartfelt cover of the song on his new album, American Standard, as well.) Bassist Tony Marino and percussionist Ben Perowsky also get to strut their stuff throughout the set.
That song follows another great personal anthem, Jason Robert Brown’s “A Song About Your Gun,” about which the unsympathetic narrator declares, finally, that she “doesn’t give a shit.” Brown gets several more props here, including the lovely “Another Life,” from The Bridges of Madison County, a Broadway flop boasting a seriously underrated score, and “Hope,” Brown’s prayer composed in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election.
Buckley and Jacobs teamed up to write “Elaine Stritch Is My Guardian Angel,” her sweet salute to the dyspeptic doyenne who presided over the Café much as joyous Bobby Short did back in the day. And she has found gold in “Old Flame,” a deliciously twisted story song written for her by Joe Iconis, of Be More Chill fame.
Of the two songs she pulls from the Jerry Herman catalogue, an intimate “Before the Parade Passes By” works better than the title song from Dolly!, which even she can’t quite fit to the room. It hardly matters. I won’t give away the song Buckley closes this fine show with, but you’ll know it, and – virus, schmirus – it will send you home in a dream state, which is as it should be.
Betty Buckley is at the Café Carlyle through March 21.