By Sarah Downs

Betty Buckley made her long awaited return to the Café Carlyle this week, in a show that will satisfy fans old and new.  Stepping beyond the expected, she has intertwined musical theater  and standards with contemporary pieces, exploring various ‘romantic notions’ for a terrific evening of music.

After a huge Broadway (and beyond) career, Ms. Buckley could just rest on her laurels and revisit all of her old hits, which of course would be fabulous, but I found this musical menu far more interesting.  The essential ingredient in good singing, regardless of repertoire, is telling a story, of understanding what one is singing, and why.  Ms. Buckley has that territory covered!

In light of our recent emergence from the Covid pandemic, opening with Sting’s “Fragile” set the table.  Indeed, we have discovered both how fragile, yet how resilient, we can be.  The gentleness in Ms. Buckley’s upper register suited the lyric well, almost as if singing in a hushed tone so as not to jolt us with the news.  She moved into the realm of love and longing with Sondheim’s “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along.  She brought truth to the voice of experience without overdoing the drama.

Special guest Seth Rudetsky took a seat at the piano for a duet of “Love Song” from Pippin (Stephen Schwarz), creating a charming moment between two kindred spirits.  They glowed.

As the show proceeded her voice hit a sweet spot of style and emotion in Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice”, which honestly was my favorite part of the evening.  Maybe it’s the chance to hear a theater singer bust into a realm she doesn’t have the chance to perform as much.  What new thought a singer with dramatic nuance can bring to well known material.  Similarly her performance of Joni Mitchell’s wistful-without-weakness “Both Sides Now”  echoing with nostalgia and acceptance, was so satisfying.  That may seem an odd term to use, or indeed faint praise, but in my book it is the opposite.  The whole point in any performance is to offer an audience musical expectations and then to deliver, and if we’re lucky move beyond.  That is what Ms. Buckley does.  Effortlessly.

Musical Director and Pianist Christian Jacob dazzled unselfconsciously, leading the trio that included bassist Tony Marino and drummer Jamey Haddad, both excellent players, with an invisible hand.  The musicians transitioned seamlessly through the wide range of styles, from romantic longing to a jazzy arrangement of the Jerome Kern tune “I Won’t Dance” to Jacob’s own “Little Eyes.”  Tiny bell sounds threaded their way through several of Jacob’s musical arrangements, adding a touch of magic.

The many notions of romance held throughout the evening, including a darker aspect in songs like the MacRae/Henry tune “Wolves.”  Over an undercurrent of insistently repeated chords, Ms. Buckley sang of vulnerability to those wolves in sheeps’ (or grandma’s) clothing; of loss of innocence and lessons learned.  Yes, the woods can sometimes be dark.  However, all is not lost.   We were sent out into the evening with the twinkle of “Young At Heart” (John Richards/Carolyn Leigh) in our ears, sung almost as if by a naif, who despite life’s vicissitudes, remains open to love.  Thanks.  We needed that.

Betty Buckley, at the Café Carlyle (35 East 76th St., at Madison Ave.), with Christian Jacob , on piano, Tony Marino and Jamey Haddad.   Runs September 27-October 1.  For tickets click here, or call 212-744-1600.  Dinner at 6:30pm (get the apple pie); show at 8:45pm.