Betty Buckley’s show “Journey,” featuring songs compiled during a cross-country drive, purports to center on a variety of contemporary composers. In reality, it plays like a tribute to three-time Oscar-winning lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Buckley’s spirited vocals and ingratiating presence provide first-rate entertainment, but her material, aside from extensive use of the Bergman’s songbook, is uneven and in some cases a less than ideal showcase for her talents.
Stylishly dressed in black pantsuit, red beads and matching red shoes, Buckley opens her act with two numbers by Susan Werner, “Time Between Trains” and “Man I Used to Love.” Neither song sets the Cinegrill on fire, although the latter, a Peggy Lee-style tune, demonstrates tasty interplay between a swinging Buckley and her accompanying supermusicians, notably violinist Charlie Bisharat and sax player Billy Drewes. Her third selection, “Like a Lover,” is the true start of the program, a Brazilian-themed song by the Bergmans and Dory Caymmi, delivered with delicate sensuality and enlivened by Buckley’s reading of such lines as “How I envy a cup that knows your lips.”
“What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” benefits from Buckley’s thoughtful treatment, but Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia,” a moody piece that feels out of context, doesn’t achieve those heights. Buckley is back on track with “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” framing it with an effective story about her hard-nosed, disciplinarian father, and she unleashes a full-throated rendition of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.
Buckley delivers her best Bergmans interpretation of the evening with “Where Do You Start?” Aided by Kenny Werner’s dense, inventively voiced piano stylings, Buckley unveils the full measure of her magic on Johnny Mandel’s melody. The singer’s strongest asset is her direct, unaffected approachability, a quality this song highlights.
Sting’s “Fields of Gold” doesn’t work nearly as well. Though sax and piano are virtuosic, they overwhelm the number, and there’s both a jauntiness and pretentiousness to the presentation that goes against the grain of the material. Buckley closes her eyes, as if in a trance, but the emotions she expresses don’t tie in with what we see onstage.
Much more exciting is Billie Holiday’s “Stormy Blues,” and Buckley externalizes Holiday’s pain while masochistically reveling in such lines as “I lose my man, I lose my head, I lose my money.” Bass player Tony Marino and drummer Ray Marchica also get a chance to let loose and display their skill. There’s a solo by pianist Kenny Werner during Berlin’s “White Christmas” that qualifies as a passionate mini-concerto.
As nostalgia, Buckley’s introspective version of “Memory” digs deep into the secondary levels of the song and impressively illustrates why her Tony-winning turn in “Cats” as Grizabella made her a theater star in the first place.