To the Crazy Coqs in Piccadilly last night to catch the international debut of Carole J. Bufford, a young American songbook performer who hadn’t even left the US before this week. Under artistic director Ruth Leon, Crazy Coqs has rapidly established itself as arguably London’s leading showcase for classical cabaret acts from the States, and as well as established names like KT Sullivan, Lorna Luft and Karen Oberlin, Leon is an enthusiastic promoter of young talent. In Bufford – whom, she says, she invited to London after hearing her sing just one number – Leon has introduced us to a notable talent indeed.
Slight and elfin, Bufford engages from the off with her comfortable, relaxed stage presence and a voice that immediately demands attention: her opening numbers clearly establish on the one hand the strength, clarity and richness of her delivery and on the other her capacity for emotional communication as she pivots from smiling, big-voiced exuberance to a more sober, bluesy demeanour for Cole Porter’s What Is This Thing Called Love?
As the set progresses, the bold eclecticism of the song choices becomes apparent. Spanning almost a century, from 1919’s Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home? to 2012’s Fade Into You, much of the material is unfamiliar (certainly to me) but pleasingly cohesive. It’s all about love, but there’s very little saccharine. Bufford is adept at comic numbers with a gnarly twist, such as a lively polka about STIs, from the 1974 musical Over Here! starring John Travolta and the Andrews Sisters (!), or a bittersweet number about a homicidal romance (“My love can go just so far / Won’t you please put down that crow bar…”).
But Bufford truly excels at tales of bad romance performed with real conviction. Her dry, drawling rendition of Peggy Lee’s I Love the Way You’re Breaking My Heart suggests a delicious kind of masochism; her take on Johnny Mercer’s I Wanna Be Around combines yearning with Schadenfreude; and she makes Randy Newman’s early song Suzanne, sung from a stalker’s perspective, properly creepy. The stand-out is Cry Me a River, which here drips with the special, heartsick bitterness of curdled love – one of those riveting performances that activates the song in a way that makes you think ‘of course that’s what it means!’
A first-rate talent then, but not quite a first-rate show. Though tonally well-balanced, Body & Soul lacks a strong spine, a truly satisfying emotional or narrative trajectory. And for all her personability, Bufford’s patter tended towards boilerplate stuff, isolated gobbets of trivia about a song’s creation or platitudes about how we’ve all been in love. There wasn’t much sense of what these songs really meant to her and several numbers – including, to my mind, the title song – showcased her technical skill without really grabbing the head, heart, gut or groin.
But there’s no reason that a young performer shouldn’t overcome such issues. You can learn how to improve a show’s structure or focus more effectively on delivering the emotional meaning of a song. Some things, like talent and charisma, you’ve either got or you don’t got. And Bufford’s got.