by Ryan Leeds
“I will feel a glow just thinking of you and the way you look tonight” are the classic lyrics from Jerome Kern and Dorothy Field’s 1936 tune, “The Way You Look Tonight,” but they may might also describe the emotional reaction from an enthusiastic crowd at Joe’s Pub last evening, where Tony Award-winner Betty Buckley is currently performing a seven-show engagement through September 25.
And how did she look? As a “lady of a certain age,” Buckley—dressed casually but smartly in a slate-colored button down shirt with black pants—looked like a sweet grandmother with her thick beautiful hair and kind face. She presided over the evening as though she were taking care of her flock and imbued a caring confidence that everything in the world would be just fine. More importantly, she sounded marvelous as she navigated her varied and interesting material in her new show entitled Story Songs.
Buckley’s sense of assurance came early in the evening with “All Things In Time,” a song written by one of Buckley’s admired composers Jason Robert Brown. “Let’s make a deal: I will be here, waiting with you, Trusting what’s true, stumbling blind, but knowing we’ll find, everything in its’ time.” She later tapped into the Brown songbook with “Cassandra”, a brand new song that is part of a musical-in-progress, and once again with “Another Life” from The Bridges of Madison County. Perhaps if we’re lucky, a role is in the works for a future Jason Robert Brown musical.
Buckley may have a maternal aura about her but she also demonstrates hipness, referencing a fondness for Facebook, Instagram, and the English rock band Radiohead, covering their 1995 hit “High and Dry.” Returning to her musical theater roots, she sang Stephen Schwartz’s “Chanson,” a song that takes us to the French countryside and “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” a timeless song from South Pacific that strikes an even deeper nerve at the height of our current political and social chaos.
Buckley joked that she is past the phase in her life of having certain angst. She admitted that one of the joys of growing older is that there are things you simply don’t care about. After discovering the up-and-coming theater composer Joe Iconis on social media, she reached out to him and asked if he would write a song for her upcoming show. Iconis came back with a few tunes that didn’t exactly fit her temperament, but he finally struck gold with the hilarious but deeply poignant “Old Flame.” It speaks about a woman who seeks revenge on a former lover, but in time, changes her mind after realizing that some relationships can never be snuffed out (in spite of insight from Oprah Winfrey). It is a song that no doubt, is destined to become a classic, but only if left in the capable hands of a legend like Buckley.
The Texas native tapped into her country/folk side with a hauntingly beautiful rendition of Emmlyou Harris’ “Prayer In Open D,” featuring her wonderful guitarist Oz Noy. Buckley’s presence was only enhanced by Noy and her entire band directed by jazz pianist Christian Jacob, Tony Marino on bass, and Ben Perowsky on drums and percussion.
She yielded the spotlight to Jacob, who, along with Tierney Sutton, composed the orchestral score for the new Clint Eastwood film, Sully. Jacob performed the theme song to the movie. Buckley shared that Jacob and Sutton had only three days to write all of the music for the film. Clearly, Jacobs is a master and is not only a great film composer, but is a first rate accompanist.
Buckley’s version of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “September Song” was a major highlight of the evening as she breathed heart wrenching emotion into the standard. Like all good performers, she left on a high note with Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” an anthem of hope and perseverance.
Early in the show, Buckley spoke about how the evening came together with the help of Jacob and other friends who provided input. She remarked that certain songs have a specific emotional connection at different points in life. One only wishes that she had elaborated more on the reasons for choosing her specific songs. Still, Buckley is a gifted and gracious artist who knows the capabilities of her own vocal range and in the final analysis, solidifies her status as a legendary performer.
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.