In the first of two performances for Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, Broadway diva Betty Buckley cut an elegant figure against the Allen Room’s expansive night-time view of Central Park South and Columbus Circle. She studiously avoided another reprise of “Memory,” the reflective anthem she introduced to lasting acclaim in “Cats,” but assured her devoted audience that her repertoire would include a reverent appreciation of the Broadway musical legacy.
Her program is titled “Quintessence,” meaning the perfect embodiment, in this case of a song. Buckley is a consummate actor capable of revealing the dramatic truth of a lyric while framing the musical text with a voice that can purr like a kitten or roar like a lioness.
The Tony winner entered the hallowed halls of the great American songbook with the durable Hoagy Carmichael-Mitchell Parish classic “Star Dust.” Buckley invested the standard with a new luster that was melodically simple and lyrically plaintive.
A medley of melodies by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman — “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” and “The Summer Knows” — revealed a wistful sense of longing. Buckley avoided the customary cabaret small talk, instead settling in for a demonstration of dynamics, purpose and dramatic flow.
The words and music of Stephen Sondheim always heighten a program by a theater veteran, and with “No One Is Alone” and “Anyone Can Whistle,” Buckley revealed the plaintive story harbored in a dramatic narrative.
For an engagement that fell just before Valentine’s Day, Buckley nested “My Funny Valentine” into a Rodgers & Hart medley that coupled “You’re Nearer” with Lerner & Loewe’s “If Ever I Would Leave You.” The trilogy revealed a straightforward letter from the heart, served with lovely restraint.
For a finale Buckley took a torrid jazz turn with Billie Holiday’s “Stormy Blues,” giving the musicians a free hand to romp. A sweeping statement from Todd Reynolds’ jazz fiddle, Tony Marino’s salty tenor sax and musical director Kenny Werner’s funky piano solo framed Buckley’s down-and-dirty blues with the kind of dusty roadside grandeur that marked her Lone Star state beginnings.
Buckley returns to Feinstein’s at the Regency for two weeks beginning March 27 with a new program.