Betty Buckley’s ‘Ghostlight,’ a master storyteller illuminates a yearning heart

By Nancy Churnin, Dallas Morning News
October 10, 2014

Ghostlight refers to the lightbulb that’s left on to keep the theater ghosts company after everyone has gone. It’s a perfect title for Betty Buckley’s 16th album, which illuminates darkness with pensive notes of longing.

The Texas-based Buckley, a Fort Worth native and veteran of stage, television, screen and cabaret who once trod the boards at Casa Manana, won a Tony Award for Grizabella in Cats in 1983 and been inducted in the Theater Hall of Fame. She calls the classes she teaches annually at The Modern in Fort Worth “Story Songs.” Fittingly, each song on Ghost Light, some rarely heard, others well-known, unspools a story and not always the one you expect.

The album, released in September from Palmetto Records, begins with a wistful “Come to Me, Bend to Me” from Brigadoon, decanted as yearning for a loved one impossibly out of reach. That feeling of loss builds with the next choice, “If You Go Away” from Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. The hunger for connection intensifies with Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” Then she swerves to a determination to move on with Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw it Away”: “…you can never lose a thing. If it belongs to you.”

Intimate as this album is, one never forgets Buckley’s power. The force she keeps in check ripples under the surface as she caresses the lyrics and melodies. Each song is backed simply by a handful of well-chosen instruments that vary among the numbers — a piano, electric guitar, drums, bass, cello, under the unerring ear of producer T Bone Burnett, who knows his singer well. The famed songwriter/musician, who pitches in on the steel guitar, is a childhood friend who began recording her when they were both 19.

One unexpected pleasure for Dallas-Fort Worth audiences is the choice of “Lazy Afternoon” from The Golden Apple. The rarely produced 1954 musical by Jerome Moross and John La Touche is about to get a full production from Lyric Stage in Irving. The show opens Oct. 24 with a 43-person cast and a 36-piece orchestra.

Just don’t expect anyone to sing the song the way Buckley does. That, in part, is due to the uniqueness of her voice, at once so rich, precise, lush and clear. But it’s also because she shines a light on different facets of the songs than those that fit into the larger musical. Who knew the usually brassy “Bewitched” from Pal Joey could brim with a wonder that reminds us of the aching emptiness that precedes falling in love?

The journey twists around raw and tender places in the heart, yet the album is affirming. Each mini-story lifts us closer to a larger understanding that moves us from the darkness toward the light that can shine from a single voice singing in the dark.