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Skillful Buckley makes Broadway hymns hers

She’s the man.

Which is exactly how Betty Buckley wants it in "Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway."

Buckley’s one-woman salute to Broadway classics, men’s division – which continues tonight and Sunday at The Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz – ranks as a double pleasure.

It’s a delightful stroll down memory lane, as the "Cats" Tony winner delivers a reelin’-in-the-years survey of great theatrical numbers – all originally sung by male characters.

But it’s also a tribute to Buckley’s masterful musicianship and dramatic skills, demonstrating the nuances a sensitive, assured performer can bring to the most familiar song.

Of course, Buckley’s been down this road before – most notably as the title character in the Tony-winning 1985 musical "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," which is now back on Broadway.

"It’s a very odd moment when a show you originated is being revived," Buckley drawled, tongue-in-cheek, to Thursday’s opening-night crowd. "I don’t know how that happened."

But if "Drood’s" gender-bending paved the way for this current show, the passage of time has definitely paid off.

Then again, Buckley confesses, she’s been one of the guys since she saw the movie adaptation of "West Side Story" in 1961 and not only fell for Russ Tamblyn’s Riff but wanted to be Riff – a connection she demonstrated with a raucous "Jet Song," followed by a warm, wonder-struck "Maria."

Sure, "Maria’s" Tony’s song in "West Side Story," but Buckley’s just warming up in her multiple roles.

She sings both Fred Astaire’s and Ginger Rogers’ parts while giving a witty, lilting spin to "I Won’t Dance," from the divine duo’s 1935 romp "Roberta." Later, Buckley goes that one better with a "Sweeney Todd" suite, performing three different songs sung by three different characters in Stephen Sondheim’s musical thriller, capturing the brave naivete of "Not While I’m Around," the youthful passion of "Joanna" – and the chilling focus of "My Friends," the demon barber of Fleet Street’s tender ode to the razors that will enable him to achieve his bloody vengeance.

Buckley’s one of the guys in "Guys and Dolls, swinging out on "Luck Be a Lady" – as she observes, "a perfect song for Vegas, right?" But she also finds new, rueful depth in a shimmering version of "The Pajama Game’s" big pop hit, "Hey There," showing off the harmonious bond between Buckley and her new pianist and musical director, Christian Jacob – a veteran of the Tierney Sutton Band, which is scheduled to play Cabaret Jazz at the end of the month (Drummer Matt Betton and bassist Peter Barshay round out Buckley’s easy-swinging, subtly expressive backing trio.)

For the most part, Buckley sings the songs in "Ah, Men!" as written, with an occasional tweak to the lyrics here and there.

Except, happily, in the show’s manifesto, a hilarious revamp of "A Hymn to Him" from "My Fair Lady," in which Buckley transforms Prof. Henry Higgins’ smug "why can’t a woman be more like a man?" into an argument for gender-blind casting, staking her claim to leading roles from "Les Miserables" to "The Music Man."

After all, as she sings, "do you really need two dozen penises to tour in ‘1776’?"

Alas, it’s not likely that anyone will cast Buckley as one of "1776’s" Founding Fathers anytime soon.

But in the midst of "Ah, Men!" she makes room for one woman’s song: "Evita’s" haunting "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," to be featured in her latest cabaret compendium devoted to Broadway’s villainous vixens.

With any luck, Buckley will be back at Cabaret Jazz next year to share another scintillating showcase.

For now, though, let’s hear it for the boys.

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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