Betty Buckley, "Story Songs" (Palmetto, two discs)
What a strange and challenging but admirable figure Betty Buckley is.
Toward the lamentable end of the late Studio Arena Theatre, she was grimly miscast in the starring role of A.R. Gurney's play "Buffalo Gal" in which we were asked to believe that Buckley's Texas earthiness and musical theater extroversion could fit into Gurney's world of Saturn Club WASP privilege, a world that would have been perfect for Glenn Close or Holland Taylor. She tried gamely but she couldn't have been more misplaced if she'd tried.
What you hear in this two-disc set isn't jazz song or musical theater but that winning amalgam of both we've always liked to characterize as Cabaret singing. In other words, intimate to the max but steeped in theatrical music. Here is a singer dedicated to the songs and their words and stories with terrific pianist/arranger Christian Jacob. Some of it is from Los Angeles when she was performing in "Grey Gardens" at night. These songs, she says, that she's "always loved" include beauties with all manner of provenance now. Some were suggested by such friends as actress Martha Plimpton ("High and Dry"). Some were composed by Peter Gabriel ("Don't Give Up"), Abbey Lincoln ("Throw It Away"), Sting ("Pratical Arrangement") and Leonard Cohen ("Bird on a Wire.") She dedicates some songs to Howard DaSilva and Elaine Stritch, a couple of theatrical venerables if ever there were any. Familiar songs include Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," the standard "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and Sondheim's "I'm Still Here."
What seems hugely admirable about all this is the beautiful playing by Jacob and Co. and her vehemently personal interpretations. The two live performances are from a Costa Mesa, Calif. Center for the Arts and Joe's Pub in New York City. Put it this way: Betty Buckley's long history as a misfit isn't always hard to take. Sometimes, it works out splendidly.
3 stars (out of four)