Review: Betty Buckley Digs Deep for the Autumn in Her Soul

By Stephen Holden
New York Times
September 24, 2016

“September! November!” To hear Betty Buckley cry out the names of the remaining months as the year wanes in “September Song” at Joe’s Pub on Thursday evening was to hear a great dramatic singer dig out the underlying anguish in a standard that is typically treated as a slice of senior nostalgia.

Yes, the days may be dwindling down, but there is consolation. The words, “These few precious days I’ll spend with you” give you an image of grandma and grandpa snuggling under a comforter by the hearth, not of a dazed oldster struggling with Alzheimer’s. Without overstating things, Ms. Buckley found alarm and impending grief in the song.

“September Song” is one of the most memorable moments of her stunning new show “Story Songs,” arguably the strongest cabaret of her career. Ms. Buckley belongs to a small circle of nightclub singers who are truth-tellers. Riding the crest of acclaim she received for her portrayal of “Big Edie” in a Los Angeles production of the musical “Grey Gardens,” Ms. Buckley, her voice in excellent shape, gave everything she sang the shape and depth of a personal confession. Happily, it wasn’t all bleak.

There was “Old Flame,” a zany film-noir pastiche by Joe Iconis, whose punch line deflates the narrator’s fantasy of murderous revenge on an old lover. “Cassandra,” a Jason Robert Brown song from a work in progress, describes a woman who can see into the future but keeps her mouth shut because the men around her say her predictions “never make a lick of sense.” Her icy rendition of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” was a painful reminder that racial prejudice, once thought to be receding, remains a seemingly intractable problem.

Ms. Buckley’s musicians included Christian Jacob, her arranger and musical director on piano, Tony Marino on bass, Oz Noy on guitar, and the drummer Ben Perowsky. Their instrumental settings gave the songs the far-reaching dimensions they deserved. Nearly every one was a reflection on the degree to which time alters our perceptions of life. Most poignant of all was Ms. Buckley’s eloquent rendition of “Don’t Give Up,” Peter Gabriel’s plea for courage in hard times.