Betty Buckley began singing in a Methodist church choir, which may account for the near-religious intensity of her concert outing as the Donmar Warehouse’s latest visiting diva. (Clive Rowe, the Olivier Award-winning English co-star of “Guys and Dolls” and “Carousel” comes next.) Inheriting a spot previously occupied by Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald and Barbara Cook, among others, Buckley brings an utterly singular fervor (and a great backup trio) to some of the same repertoire — McDonald fave “Stars and the Moon,” for instance, by Jason Robert Brown, or LuPone’s beloved “Meadowlark,” from “The Baker’s Wife.” Small wonder Buckley clasps her hands together, as if in prayer, when making her introductory bows: her voice is a blessed thing, indeed.
One’s feelings about her God-given talents don’t necessarily translate into an undiluted triumph; as any stylist knows, an assured set of pipes is only part of a soloist’s recipe for success (albeit a mighty important part). Why wasn’t Buckley on opening night greeted with the ovation that has accompanied most of her predecessors in this space? The answer has little to do with a vocal skill virtually sine qua non, some absent top notes — well, LuPone knows about those, too — notwithstanding. On looks alone, Buckley deserves a brava, though her ankle-length sea-green gown for the first act made for a happier choice than the post-intermission tuxedo.
Instead, I suspect some may be as put off as others are enthralled by so insistent a rigor that her approach to the music has the effect of leaving a listener at arm’s length. After a while, one wants to encourage Buckley to let her hair down, so to speak, in ways that go beyond the inevitable asides to the audience (in her case, rather touching ones). At her best, Buckley possesses too thrillingly honky-tonk a gift — to wit, her version of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Come On Come On,” one of the evening’s glories — to emerge as merely high priestess: Broadway’s not ready for the Jessye Norman act quite yet.
Admittedly, it can’t be easy to sing “Memory” 18 years after winning a Tony with the song and still have it mean something — though Cook, it has to be said, can still trill her way inimitably through “Ice Cream” from “She Loves Me,” which was nearly four decades ago. But the “Cats” showstopper brought out Buckley at her least convincing and most sculptural: italicizing emotion with a series of gestures that seemed more disconnected from reality than her Norma Desmond, a second Buckley heroine, ever was. Speaking of “Sunset Boulevard,” one could spot Buckley’s evident growth along with that character in the several years since her London opening in the show, replacing LuPone.
But it’s not entirely her fault that a litany of Lloyd Webber ballads (“We refer to them as arias ever since Andrew was made a lord,” she cracked, drolly) coexists uneasily with some truly stunning forays into the American repertoire — not just Carpenter and Amanda McBroom (a Cook favorite, incidentally) but the obligatory, by no means unwelcome, “new composer” lineup of Brown, Ricky Ian Gordon and Adam Guettel. (Best of their section: Gordon’s ceaselessly haunting “Sycamore Trees,” rendingly delivered by the star.) Perhaps surprisingly, not least because “Merrily We Roll Along” arrives at the Donmar in December, Buckley does only one Sondheim: that show’s “Not a Day Goes By,” which provides her opening gambit.
Buckley’s spiritual empathy is never in doubt: Her encore is a shiver-inducing “Amazing Grace” begun a cappella that one wishes would be completed the same way. And that fiercely held vibrato is itself a remarkable instrument, as anyone knows who heard (or saw) Buckley play the religious-hysteric mother in Broadway’s legendarily ill-fated “Carrie.” (Those wanting a musical memento from a less celebrated flop, “Triumph of Love,” will go away disappointed.) Perhaps what’s missing is that quality of direct address everywhere apparent in LuPone and the matchless Cook, no matter how distinctive the Buckley sound.
“You’re Nearer,” goes the title of a Rodgers and Hart standard that Buckley pairs early on with “If Ever I Would Leave You.” But despite the intimacy of the Donmar, Buckley could still get nearer. As it is, that prodigious talent seems to be singing to itself, when we want it to reach out to us.