BWW Reviews: Carole J. Bufford Passionately Pours Her Heart and Mind into 'Body & Soul' at the Metropolitan Room
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by Stephen Hanks
Cabaret Review by Stephen Hanks
Dear gentle reader, please be forewarned. The breathless prose you are about to read is for mature audiences only. Prepared to be raved.
I don't know about other cabaret journalists, but I have to believe that a reviewer feels the biggest buzz (aside from when composing a really well-crafted show analysis) when he or she has been fortunate enough to observe a young performer's ascent into stardom. That's the way I felt last Wednesday night at the Metropolitan Room as I was watching Carole J. Bufford's new show, Body & Soul.
I wasn't part of the cabaret scene when Bufford finished as the second runner-up in the 2009 MetroStar Talent Challenge (damn, the two who beat her out--Liz Lark Brown and Danielle Grabianowski--must have been awesome), and I had just started writing reviews in late 2010 after Bufford did her interpretation of the Randy Newman songbook at Don't Tell Mama (damn, I'm sorry I missed that one--I love Randy's stuff) and had appeared for her second time at the October Cabaret Convention. But on my birthday a year later, a cabaret-going buddy convinced me to extend my celebrating long enough to visit Feinstein's for the Scott Siegel-produced 11 O'Clock Numbers at 11 O'Clock and that's when I heard Bufford for the first time. I was suitably impressed by her combination of an engaging personality with vocal power and placed her name on my "someone-to-watch" list.
Bufford quickly transitioned into the "rising star" category with her real breakout show, the highly-praised speak easy. (staged last Spring at the Metropolitan Room), which was a pitch perfect, charming performance featuring songs of the Jazz Age. But with Body & Soul, Bufford has made a seamless transition from a carefree 1920s flapper to a more mature and worldly-wise 1930s-'40s torch song-singing chanteuse. While there are a couple of contemporary songs in this show, Bufford is a throwback to the era when female vocalists fronted big bands in smokey nightclubs (and perhaps doubled as gun-molls for gangsters). Even Bufford's middle-initial adorned name sounds deliciously retro.
Offering a complete play-by-play of how Bufford delivered the songs from this new show (with the help of superb arrangements by her Musical Director and pianist Ian Herman and expert support on bass from Matt Wigton) would be hopelessly pedestrian, too much of a "spoiler alert," and would not do this terrific performance justice. Bufford is simply an exciting young entertainer who poured her heart and mind into Body & Soul, the first cabaret show that nightlife impresario Scott Siegel (producer of myriad shows at The Town Hall and the guru behind the Nightlife Awards) has produced for a specific performer. Suffice to say, Siegel is now batting 1.000.
Bufford consistently rocks outfits for her lithe and lovely body, and for this show she entered in a sleeveless and skin-tight, floor-length wrap dress that made her look like a silver mermaid, only with a slit up one side instead of a tail. Then she set the humorous and sensual tone of the evening by relating how a certain gentleman commented on the show title by asking, "Are you stripping?" Bufford's one eye-brow raised comeback? "Only figuratively, sir." She then proceeded to prove that by expressing the vagaries of romantic entanglements--obsessive love, emotional angst, even playful seductiveness--throughout a well-crafted, eclectic, and intelligently-conceived 16-song set that also showcased Bufford's ability to adapt her polished and supple vocal instrument to any song style.
Bufford opened with the swinging and perky, "Your Kisses Kill Me" (the music for which was written by Steve Lawrence and recorded by Eydie Gorme in 1957, the year the charming performing couple was married), she went dramatically torchy on Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?, became coquettish on Milton Drake and Louis Alter's "I Love the Way You're Breaking My Heart," re-entered the Jazz Age on "Baby, Won't You Please Come Home," jumped forward almost a century with the country ballad "Fade Into You," a hit from the TV show Nashville, became mischievously, yet playfully vulgar on "Good Time Girl" (also known as the "VD Polka," from the 1974 musical Over Here), and brought the first half of the set to a show-stopping crescendo with a stunning version of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man of Mine" from Show Boat, taking the song home with those iconic Judy Garland-esque flailing arm movements and a vocal force that should have beamed her and the audience to a huge concert hall. With all due respect to the lovely Metropolitan Room, Carole J. Bufford is simply outgrowing the space. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
As Bufford wended her way through the set, turning from silly to sassy to sultry to soulful on a dime, and taking a rapt audience along with her, my cerebral search engine was trying to determine if a comparison could be made between this engaging singer and celebrated performers of the past. I thought about how another Carol--Burnett--and her BFF Julie Andrews (who Bufford has impersonated in revues) would stage those delightfully entertaining TV specials and the mini-epiphany struck. Carol J. Bufford is a musical comedy hybrid of Carol Burnett (without the extreme wackiness) and Julie Andrews (with more of a vocal edge). She's even got the Andrews Thoroughly Modern Millie bobbed hair.
Bufford maintained the passionate pace in second half of the set, as she continued with a mix of songs filled with humor and pathos. She made "Say That We're Sweethearts Again," a song about being poisoned, disfigured and brutalized, sound like a cheery ode to not giving up on a relationship. As she sang the opening lines of the classic Johnny Mercer song "I wanna be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart," a glass fell to the Met Room floor and Bufford chuckled and quipped "That was some timing" without missing a beat. She was at her Randy Newman best on the quirky "Suzanne," about a guy's obsession with a woman he only knows by a number found in a telephone booth (remember those days, guys?), and offered up the achingly tender "A Cottage for Sale" with Garland-like poignancy.
All of that would be more than enough to stamp Body & Soul as an early favorite for a 2013 "Cabaret Show of the Year" Award (hey, it's never too early to drop hints), but there was one bring-the-house-down moment left and it was on Arthur Hamilton's classic "Cry Me A River." Bufford's soaring, heartaching, but not overly dramatic rendition combined fragile vulnerability with resilient strength. If that wasn't enough to make the seduction complete, Bufford's encore was a stirring take on Edith Piaf's classic "Non, Je New Regrette Rien," and like Kevin Costner did to a Piaf-loving Susan Sarandon in the film Bull Durham, I wanted to storm the stage and start painting Bufford's toenails.
I guess for now I'll just have to settle for bowing at her feet.
Carole J. Bufford continues her run of Body & Soul at the Metropolitan Room on Jan. 23 (9:30pm), Feb. 6 and 13 (7pm), Feb. 20 (9:30pm), and Feb. 27 (7pm). The Metropolitan Room is at 34 West 22nd Street. For reservations call: 212-206-0440.
Photos by Russ Weatherford