This past week, the Broadway icon Betty Buckley delivered a diverse and unexpected set at Joe’s Pub in her new cabaret show “Story Songs.” Content ran the gamut from jazz standards to new and old Broadway show tunes to ’90s alternative rock. Buckley presented each song with enough character to keep things interesting, and enough honesty for the audience to believe her sincerity. The “Cats” alum delivered a very well thought-out cabaret that showed off her singing chops, acting skills and storytelling prowess.
Buckley began with a sweet rendition of the familiar “The Way You Look Tonight.” She followed up with an anecdote about her friendship with composer Jason Robert Brown, who suggested several songs for her cabaret show, and then sung his song “All Things In Time.” Buckley then threw a complete curveball by performing a very unique version of Radiohead’s “High and Dry,” sung in a quasi-operatic style that was both unconventional and successful. She followed up with classic show tunes such as “Chanson” from Stephen Schwartz’s “The Baker’s Wife” and “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” Each song told a story and even narrated an opinion that Buckley holds about current society, like when she used “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” as a parallel narrative of current race relations in the United States.
A particularly poignant moment during her performance was her rendition of Joe Iconis’ “Old Flame,” a character piece about a woman who becomes obsessed with an old flame and sets out to murder him to get him off her mind, but ends up accidentally shooting another man. Before the song began, Buckley turned around and gathered herself before facing the audience. It was immediately clear that Buckley was no longer on that stage, but rather wholly assumed her character. Each note was so passionate and each mannerism so animated that it was very easy to connect with her. This song was an entire acting performance.
Buckley reminisced about her time playing Nora Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” in the ’90s and also about her time playing Big Edie in “Grey Gardens” this past theater season. She concluded the cabaret with a bittersweet yet hopeful message from Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up.”
Each song that Buckley performed, she performed with such a sense of sincerity and passion. It is clear that she not only understands the essence of each song, but has absorbed it and made it a part of herself. The honesty and vulnerability that she presented in her performance was refreshing — she shared her outlooks on life as well as personal emotions. While it would have been nice to have heard Buckley classics such as “Memory” from “Cats,” the wide array of hand-picked songs created a much more intimate and thoughtful performance. “Story Songs” provided the perfect melange of the art of storytelling and the personal narrative.
“Betty Buckley: Story Songs” played at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette St. Sept. 23-25.
A version of this story appeared in the Monday, Oct. 3 print edition. Email Joseph Myers at [email protected]