With a long line of credits on Broadway, TV, film and cabaret, Betty Buckley makes her jazz club debut at New York’s Blue Note. Buckley more than satisfies, but the set feels under-rehearsed and — at 90 minutes — overlong for all but head-over-heels fans.
Buckley’s “Stardust” is absolutely breathtaking, delivered with such emotion that even the waiters fell silent. Buckley has sung the Hoagy Carmichael/Mitchell Parrish standard before — in the Erte-designed revue of the same name (which closed during its 1990 tryout) — but not like this.
Other standouts are “Dindi,” by Antonio Carlos Jobim, in which the pain comes searing through; a touching and lovely rendition of Rodgers and Hart’s “You’re Nearer”; and Brenda Russell’s “Get Here.” High point of the set is Bessie Smith’s “Stormy Blues,” with Buckley and her band at their hottest.
Buckley is backed by Kenny Werner, her musical director since 1990, leading a strong quintet dubbed Quintessence. They are topnotch, with a number of especially fine solos by Todd Reynolds (violin) and Billy Drewes (reeds).
Some of Werner’s arrangements, however, are undoubtedly strange. Buckley introduces one of her three Sondheim numbers by placing the blame — playfully? — on arranger Werner. “The arrangement has grown on me,” she says without conviction. “No, really, it has.” She asks the audience to keep it secret from the composer, jokingly requesting the press not mention it in their reviews. Alas, it is too eerie to ignore: “Anyone Can Whistle” as played by the inmates of Fogg’s Asylum (in “Sweeney Todd”).
Buckley, a Tony winner for “Cats” and star of the infamous “Carrie,” is known in theater circles as being tempestuous; how many performers have full-fledged shows written about the tribulations of appearing with them? (John Flynn’s “Dances With Pitchforks” offered a fly-in-the-rehearsal-hall view of Buckley in the 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse production of “Gypsy,” and the pitchforks were out all right.) But at the Blue Note, Buckley is warm and welcoming, displaying impressive musicianship and genuine likability.
After Buckley blew the final note of “Something’s Coming,” Werner jokingly called for a rehearsal after the show. Act has plenty of good material but seems haphazardly assembled and shaped. On at least five of 16 songs, Buckley repeatedly glanced at her music stand between phrases for the next words. You would think she would know the lyric by now to, say, “No One Is Alone.” Happily, though, she knows the music and how to sing it.
Despite reservations, Buckley — at the Blue Note for one 12-performance week — is mighty impressive.