Broadway by Request
Feinstein’s at LOEWS Regency
Being forced to listen to Betty Buckley screech her way through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s godawful “Memory” for the nine millionth time reminds me of what the Japanese did to American POWs in World War II. This ossified assault on the ears from Cats is just part of the torture being staged nightly at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency through March 7. It’s an experience I consider three inches south of unlistenable.
Directed with a sledgehammer by Richard Jay-Alexander, who knows better, this sloppy excuse for a cabaret act would be unacceptable with free food coupons, but at these prices one is tempted to call in the Bureau of Consumer Affairs. After his rambling, incoherent intro, illustrated with film clips of Sissy Spacek in the movie Carrie (what any of this has to do with Betty Buckley is a major mystery), comedian Seth Rudetsky begins his cluttered piano accompaniment for an act that raises eyebrows before the star of the show even enters from the kitchen. Called “Broadway by Request,” the mere concept reeks of suspicion, since every second-rate song in the act has been prepared in advance. Anyone naïvely seeking assurance that Feinstein’s is a reliable bastion of beautiful music from the archives of the Great American Songbook is wholeheartedly advised to stay home with a Blossom Dearie CD. There are no surprises in the agony on display here, and you will not hear a single classic by Kern, Porter, Berlin or Rodgers and Hart. Trust me. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a vile substitute for Oscar Hammerstein.
I am always happy for the success of a fellow Texan transported to the Apple, and Betty Lynn Buckley, from Fort Worth, has a Texas tumbleweed personality laced with warm, funny candor that is probably appealing in a penthouse living room. And to be fair, I have always admired her acting. She was excellent in the 1983 film Tender Mercies, and I never missed her on the brutal HBO series Oz. But as far as I’m concerned, she should stick to talking and stay as far away from singing as a 747 can carry her. Whether she’s shrieking her way through a Burt Bacharach ballad or breaking glasses on a Stephen Schwartz song from Pippin, she claims there’s a little child inside who does all of her singing for her. That child must be a screaming schizophrenic. On opening night, a woman collapsed in the middle of her blistering histrionics, knocking over a table, and while the stunned audience waited for her to be picked off the floor and carried out, Ms. Buckley continued full-speed ahead like a runaway diesel truck on the Long Island Expressway, completely unfazed.
Like press-on nails scraping across a blackboard, she tackles one overwrought song after another, plowing through Sondheim’s “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods, a show she claims was “partially written” for her, and tells a bitter story about Patti LuPone, who was enraged when Ms. Buckley sang “Meadowlark.” She called up LuPone, the only diva who can sing an aria louder and uglier than Betty Buckley, to apologize, and LuPone sniffed: “How would you feel if I sang ‘Memory’?” Now I am here to tell you the thought of Patti LuPone caterwauling her way through “Memory” is the musical equivalent of bamboo shoots under the fingernails.
The act’s gimmick: a hat sits on the piano, from which she randomly plucks “audience requests.” Of course, those requests are songs she has either recorded or performed in shows, all carefully rehearsed, spontaneous as a valedictory speech, and belted like a ranch foreman calling cows. God forbid someone should write “Long Ago and Far Away” or “Blue Moon.” She might go into cardiac arrest. It would be interesting if she used her experience, maturity and gray hair to examine the lyrics on a standard worth singing, like Oscar Levant’s “Blame it on My Youth.” But she leaves songs gutted, like catfish.
There is one funny story about losing the Miss Fort Worth pageant to a bodacious belle who recited a monologue from Gone With the Wind while eating a turnip. But the talk is mostly mean-spirited and self-pitying, and there is entirely too much of it. Even if I liked her singing, which I don’t, I would consider it undercut by so much verbiage. (Maybe not such a bad thing after all; it postpones her massacring the music.) But I remain undaunted in my belief that there’s a big difference between singing from the guts and singing from the heart. She needles notes to death until the songs become predictable and tiresome. It’s a bad habit that I see in many of today’s pop tarts, from Jennifer Hudson to that ghastly little Miley Cyrus—both guilty of the same bombast. Not all singers can play an instrument. Not all musicians are singers. But all singers should be musical—except the ones who mangle lyrics without a thought for subtext, phrasing or timing. Betty Buckley is a crypto-Merman drama queen who sacrifices subtlety, tone, restraint and originality of interpretation for hair-raising shrieks, phony emotions and infuriating mannerisms. When tears come flowing down her cheeks on cue, I don’t believe a minute of it. What some of her fans hear as the clarion call of a clear bell comes across to me as the wail of a fire engine.
I’m no fan, but Betty Lynn Buckley’s success is real enough to warrant a better show than the lazy, exasperating mess to which her audiences are being subjected at Feinstein’s.