BWW Reviews: The Password is 'Fun' as Carole J. Bufford Transforms Into a Sensational Flapper-Era Singer at the Metropolitan Room
By Stephen Hanks
When they dimmed the lights and closed the curtain of the Metropolitan Room for last night’s 9:30 show, the club’s audience for the evening was suddenly sent back in time about 80-to-90 years. As a Charleston-style ditty began pulsating through the space, a flapperish singer named Carole J. Bufford bounded past the curtain and the Met Room became a prohibition-era speakeasy, with the operative password being: FUN.
A finalist in the 2009 MetroStar Talent Challenge, Bufford has since performed in a score of Scott Siegel productions, such as his Broadway by the Year shows at Town Hall and 11 O’Clock Numbers at 11 O’Clock at Feinstein’s at The Loew’s Regency. She’s also garnered positive notices for her solo cabaret gigs, including her 2010 Randy Newman tribute show. But her current 16-song homage to the music of an era when only people imbibing in a secret club could spare a dime is clearly Bufford's break-out cabaret performance. Throughout her show speak easy. there was no prohibition on her talent. This gal with a mezzo soprano belt is the Real McCoy.
Frankly, it’s hard not to be the bee's knees when your orchestra for songs from the 1920s and ‘30s is led by Vince Giordano and members of his band The Nighthawks. Giordano and company not only play music from this era every week at Sofia’s Downstairs Theater, they are the house band playing the vintage tunes featured in the HBO Series Boardwalk Empire (for which they earned a 2012 Grammy Award). And with Larry Lees providing retro-style arrangements and orchestrations (and also playing a mean slide whistle), Bufford was transformed into a classic big-band front singer from the Jazz Age; a modern day version of Ruth Etting or Annette Hanshaw, only with a more powerful voice.
Wearing a flapper-style black dress with a jeweled headband around her short auburn hair, the lean, attractive, and charming Bufford channeled the look of Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie, while her on-stage attitude would have made Lois Long proud. In the 1920s Long was the provocative nightlife columnist for The New Yorker magazine who once wrote: “We women had been emancipated and we weren’t sure what we were supposed to do with all the freedom and equal rights, so we were going to hell laughing and singing . . .” Well, the Met Room audience may not have been headed for Hades, but from the moment Bufford launched into the bouncy 1919 presaging prohibition song “How Are You Goin’ To Wet Your Whistle (When the Whole Darn World Goes Dry),” they certainly seemed ready to “Let’s Misbehave,” during which Bufford exhibited her hot flapper dance moves to the Cole Porter song, supported by a driving band arrangement.
After a very appealing version—and a cool band riff—of “Walking My Baby Back Home,” Bufford was the cat's meow on another period piece, “Don’t Put a Tax on the Beautiful Girls” (one of the numbers that popped up in Boardwalk Empire), a tune reminiscent of those quirky story songs from the early days of Al Jolson (such as “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday on Saturday Night?”). Bufford nailed these cute, up-tempo numbers with an articulation of lyrics as technically proficient as anyone you'll hear in cabaret. But it was clear from the get-go that one of her big vocal challenges would be holding up against a 7-piece band featuring four horns in a relatively small room. Such was the issue on Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” where the over-orchestration overpowered her vocal. Bufford’s first ballad of the set would have benefited from a more minimalist arrangement and the number really didn’t come together until the end of the song. (Click on Page 2 below to continue.)
From there the show went down as smoothly as a “Mary Pickford,” the rum-based cocktail featured on the show’s period drink special menu. Bufford brought some slinky sex-appeal to the double-entendre laced “You’ve Got the Right Key, But the Wrong Keyhole,” during which the Nighthawks soared. Each band member (Giordano on tuba and upright bass, Will Anderson on clarinet, alto, and tenor sax, Mike Ponella on trumpet, Noah Bless on trombone, Peter Yarin on piano, Steve Berger on banjo and guitar and John Meyers on drums) had a featured solo on the peppy “Jazz Me Blues.” Bufford strummed a ukulele on the audience sing-a-long “Side by Side,” before a strong, bluesy rendition of “After You’ve Gone” a sweet version of “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” and a powerful “bring it home, girl” turn on Sophie Tucker’s signature song “Some of These Days.”
And speaking of signature songs, Bufford pulled out the great Al Jolson classic “My Mammy” as an encore and delivered a version so sweet, soulful, and distinctive that anyone would want to walk a million miles for one of her smiles—and her singing. Bufford is performing this cleverly structured and emminently entertaining show again on May 19 at 4pm and May 24 at 9:30 pm. So don your fedoras or feather boas and get on over to the Metropolitan Room to Carole J. Bufford’s speak easy . . . and don’t forget the password.