Life is a cabaret old chum

Betty Buckley, Divas At The Donmar | Donmar Warehouse, London
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The Independent Culture

Betty Buckley strode purposefully on to the Donmar stage, curtseyed to all three sides of the tiny auditorium, and proceeded to rewrite the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By". Not perhaps the best way to sneak-preview the Donmar's Christmas presentation - Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along". But put it down to second-night nerves. She picked up some of the pieces with "Just the Way You Look Tonight", lingering over the phrase "because I love you" as if she might never let him or it go. But it wasn't until "Come Rain or Shine" that she and her marvellous trio - Kenny Werner (piano), Tony Marino (bass), and Jamey Haddad (drums/percussion) - tightened their grip and the Buckley "belt" (designed to part your hair at 40 paces) kicked in.

Betty Buckley strode purposefully on to the Donmar stage, curtseyed to all three sides of the tiny auditorium, and proceeded to rewrite the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By". Not perhaps the best way to sneak-preview the Donmar's Christmas presentation - Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along". But put it down to second-night nerves. She picked up some of the pieces with "Just the Way You Look Tonight", lingering over the phrase "because I love you" as if she might never let him or it go. But it wasn't until "Come Rain or Shine" that she and her marvellous trio - Kenny Werner (piano), Tony Marino (bass), and Jamey Haddad (drums/percussion) - tightened their grip and the Buckley "belt" (designed to part your hair at 40 paces) kicked in.

The Buckley sound will forever be associated, in my mind, with the song she didn't sing on this occasion; "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" from the Burt Bacharach/Hal David show Promises, Promises, which she brought to London in the Sixties. A bar or two of the introductory vamp, and I can hear it still - the nasal country twang, the little sob-like breaks in the sound. Once a Texas girl, always a Texas girl. It's probably why the best numbers in this show were the country-type ones, such as the beautiful Mary Chapin Carpenter song "Come On, Come On" told like a story, shared like a secret, with all the homespun sentiment she could muster.

It's interesting that she plays up to her "sophisticated" London audience at the expense of her Mid-West countrymen - telling you that she's a "honky-tonk" kind of singer, yet laying on the "dumb Texan" jokes. All in good fun, of course, but seriously folks, there's an edge to it. Introducing "Meadowlark" from the Stephen Schwartz show The Baker's Wife, she tells of how she auditioned nine times for a role, supposedly written for her, and still didn't get it. But, however much she jokes about the resentment (and the therapy), it's still there. "This is my song," she says, "and always will be!" She then delivers the said song, with more determination than wonder, to the accompaniment of Jamey Haddad's exotic pitched drums. These instrumental incidentals were a joy. Her pianist and Music Director, Kenny Werner, is the kind of talent you want to abduct - resourceful, surprising, wickedly creative, and it helped Buckley enormously that the tone of the evening was as loose and laid-back as it was.

To her credit, she also tapped into "upcoming" American song-writing talent with 10 new songs, and one writer in particular, Ricky Ian Gordon, pushed centre-stage. But her vocal resources are now so limited, her persona so specific, that they all came out sounding like the same song.

Even sadder, in an evening which came to be more and more about memory, were the three key Lloyd Webber songs. There is a certain poignancy now in seeing and hearing the once-glamourous, feline Grizabella pitch the memory of "Memory" like it were more of a recurring nightmare than a dream. But to find Buckley's Norma Desmond in such vocal distress just five years after her London triumph in the role was perhaps the unkindest irony of all. She should have at least been advised to take down the keys in which she sang Norma's two big "arias". Paradoxically, of course, "With One Look" reaffirms the power of star quality, operatic gesture and emotive silence over mere words. Buckley looks the part now more than ever. Enough said.

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