Betty Buckley offers power and poignancy

By James Reed

The Boston Globe

March 14, 2015

Betty Buckley was in the middle of singing the words “I won’t cry” Friday night when she actually wiped tears from her eyes. It was astonishing, a reminder of the poignancy and theatrical compassion the veteran Broadway star brings to her performances.

That song was “If You Go Away,” the Jacques Brel chestnut that’s a highlight on Buckley’s latest album, “Ghostlight.” She made it in collaboration with the producer T Bone Burnett, an old friend from their days growing up together in Fort Worth.

When Buckley brought the album to life onstage with just a pianist at Scullers on Friday, for the first of two evenings with two sets apiece (I saw the 8 p.m. show), you sensed she is still eager to push her artistic boundaries.

“Ghostlight” has a moody and moving ambience that isn’t an obvious fit for Buckley’s bright, elastic singing. In her celebrated roles on Broadway (“Cats,” “Sunset Boulevard”) — not to mention on television (“Eight Is Enough”) and on film (“Tender Mercies”) — Buckley has had pluck to spare. Her new album, though, reveals darker hues that allow the seasoned entertainer to explore different shades of her voice.

Her rendition of Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” was a revelation, a masterful mix of Buckley’s unsinkable spirit and the song’s message of renewal. “And keep your hand wide open/ Let the sun shine through/ ’Cause you can never lose a thing/ If it belongs to you,” she sang, wiping yet again her misty eyes.

French pianist Christian Jacob, her musical director who writes many of her arrangements, had a light but essential touch. He cut some of the sweetness of “Blue Skies” with contemplative minor chords, while Buckley savored its optimism.

From the musical “Pippin,” she soared through the cheery empowerment of “Corner of the Sky”; a couplet such as “I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free/ Gotta find my corner of the sky” is too twee for my taste, but Buckley’s razzle-dazzle made it palatable.

The showstopper, of course, was “Memory,” the “Cats” tour de force Buckley first performed as Grizabella in the original Broadway production. She approached it not as a tattered staple, but rather with sage understanding of its nostalgia and resilience. The big money notes — “Touch me!/ It’s so easy to leave me!” — rang out in waves of thunderous emotion.

Buckley seemed to inhabit the character once more, extending a hand to the audience she had already won over through sheer grace.