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First Nighter: Betty Buckley Goes for Men in a Big-Hearted Feinstein's at Loews Regency Way

Posted: 10/06/11 05:26 PM ET

Maybe yes, maybe no, but I'm going to label Betty Buckley's current show, Ah Men! The Boys of Broadway, at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, as the most relaxed, the most consistently easy-going, the most personable, the funniest she's ever presented in the many years she's appeared at one or another of the major local boites.

The idea behind it is that over her Broadway years, which have stretched even longer, she's sung her share of stunners and made them even more stunning -- introducing "Memory" on Manhattan boards probably being the most notable. But she's been typed out of many others for the simple reason they were written for male characters to deliver.

That didn't stop her from coveting them and even standing in the wings nightly to listen while, as one example, Michael Rupert sang William Finn's "Venice" in Elegies. Making up for lost opportunities on her return to the room, she's taken on a series of her favorites, sometimes changing pronouns, sometimes not, sometimes not needing to.

Declaring at the outset that she's always loved men, if not fully understood them, she reports her passion for them began when, at 14 (Buckley's now in her mid-'60s), she fell for Russ Tamblyn as Riff in the West Side Story movie adaptation and for months fantasized about being a Jet. So much so that when on Sundays she would enact "When You're a Jet" with the Jerome Robbins choreography in the family driveway, her dad would interrupt her saying, "Get in the car. The Jets are going to church."

So she throws herself into a commendable version of "When You're a Jet" and, later on, sings "Maria" with such muted conviction that she couldn't have been more spiritual had she been singing "Ave Maria." With the exception of "I Won't Dance" from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers Swingtime flick, she keeps herself to Broadway, throwing in anecdotes about her shows that are every bit as amusing as the Tamblyn nostalgia.

Sometimes she gives the songs the sort of rendition familiar from the originals, which doesn't mean "Luck Be a Lady" from Guys and Dolls doesn't suddenly take on an entirely new shine or beg-off number "More I Cannot Wish You" from the same superb Frank Loesser tuner acquires an untapped poignancy. At other times, she tinkers -- abetted by pianist-musical director-arranger-jazz-adept Christian Jacob -- with the mid-20th-century standards "On the Street Where You Live" and "Hey There." She turns both into arresting mood pieces that may remind fans of the work she did for nearly two decades with Kenny Werner.

The longest undertaking is a medley of Sweeney Todd threnodies -- "Not While I'm Around," "Joanna," "My Friends" -- that testifies to Buckley's appreciation for Stephen Sondheim. In the past, the master has let her know he hasn't particularly taken to her treatments of his work, but should he show up for these, he ought to approve them rather than reach for a Sweeney-ish verbal razor.

Good as the news is about this show, it's not all thumbs-up. It may even be that Buckley's personality shift comes as a result of changes in her voice. At one point referring to her being categorized as a quote "Broadway belter," she may no longer have to worry about being strictly relegated to that type-cast status. Perhaps it was just opening-night nerves, but the one-time steel-piped Buckley is now as likely to caress songs chamois-cloth-like. Moreover, where once she climbed to hit notes as if waving from the top of Everest, she now avoids them from time to time.

(She also continues to keep lyrics at hand on a music stand but doesn't really have to consult them -- a plus when she's had to get up to snuff, if not learn completely, a set of numbers she's never done before. Also, by the way, no "Memory" this appearance.)

Still, this different Buckley is well worth getting to know. Indeed, now that she's gotten past her first night and can settle into the rest of her month's stay, she might improve in all areas. The explanation for this surmise has to do with her attitude towards reviewers, who almost invariably attend her kick-off performance. On these occasions, Buckley frequently makes a comment or two about being assessed under those circumstances. It obviously bothers her, and she may not even be wrong to feel that way.

As one of Broadway's absolute best singing actors, Buckley is used to having previews to work out what she's doing before tough-minded commentators descend. Unfortunately, that's not the cabaret case. It's how things are, and even if she has a valid argument, it may be time to accept the way of the intimate-room world and get on with the entertaining.