For a young cabaret star on the rise, the review that Carole J. Bufford got from the New York Times after a 2013 cabaret appearance was the stuff dreams -- and careers -- are made of. Bowled over by her performance, the critic described Bufford as "an earthier, more acerbic 21st century Barbra Streisand."
It was heady praise. But in a way it sold her short.
In less than six years Bufford has shot to the top of a class of young singers hoping to join the pantheon of Michael Feinstein, Andrea Marcovicci and other cabaret icons. Along the way she's won Broadway World, Nightlife and Bistro Awards for best vocalist and, to a growing number of fans, she's a must-see.
It's easy to understand why: An animated, elfin performer, Bufford initially radiates an onstage vulnerability, almost like Audrey Hepburn. But then she morphs into an emotional powerhouse, with explosive renditions of torch classics, gravelly blues, flapper jazz and edgy, modern songs that ripple with darkness. The vocal comparisons that come to mind go well beyond La Streisand: New York critics have likened her rich alto to Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Bessie Smith, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday and others.
Now, California will get a chance to see her in action.
On January 21 and 22, Bufford makes her southland solo debut in cabaret concerts at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach. Although it's a large hall, the shows will take place on a stage with 150-200 surrounding seats, and Bufford will be performing Body and Soul, a hit show with songs ranging from Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and Oscar Hammerstein to Randy Newman and Trevor Rosen. For cabaret aficionados, it's not to be missed.
"This is the first time that I'll be in my own shows on the west coast, and I'm really excited to perform there," said Bufford, whose career beyond New York has brought her to stages in London, Palm Beach, Detroit, Dallas and other cities. "I know there are a lot of people in the LA-area who love this kind of music, and I'm glad to get the chance to show them what I can do."
A skeptic might wonder what exactly sets Bufford apart, given the large number of cabaret performers who pack the schedules of New York City nightclubs. There is so much talent working these rooms on any given night, so many gifted entertainers mining the Great American songbook, it all seems to blur. But catch just one of Bufford's fiery shows -- listen to her rip the heart out of standards like "Cry Me a River" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" -- and the questions vanish.
"What sets her apart is passion," said Scott Siegel, one of New York City's most respected nightlife impresarios. "She performs songs of love, betrayal, desertion, craving, infatuation, I hate you and everything in between." Siegel, who created the successful "Broadway By the Year" programs at Town Hall, has filled his stage over the years with some of the Great White Way's finest performers -- and when he first heard Bufford sing five years ago at a Metropolitan Room talent competition, he was smitten.
"I knew instantly that she was an immense talent who would not only do well in the shows I produce -- she'd bring the house down each time. And she does," said the promoter, who later became her manager. "The first time I booked her at Town Hall, she sang 'Can't Help Lovin' that Man of Mine,' and she enchanted a house filled with 1,500 people. She was born on that stage, that night."
For Bufford, the magic began early.
Born in Lincolnton, Georgia, she first remembers singing in church one Sunday morning, when the pastor asked if anyone had any music they wanted to share with the congregation. Bufford, then three years old, stood up on a pew and sang "Jesus Loves Me."
"And thus the monster was born," she cracked. "I sang in church, and I sang at beauty pageants in the south. I would sing Liza Minnelli songs when judges were making their decisions, and I realized that I wanted to seriously study musical theatre."
Bufford attended Ithaca College in upstate New York and then hit the bricks on Broadway, auditioning for parts. It was frustrating, she says, because she wasn't able to sing the kind of material she liked, and people tried to slot her into ingénue roles.
"That just wasn't me," she said.
I loved many kinds of music, and I liked to interpret the songs I sang, in my own way. I didn't know anything about cabaret, really, but I entered an American Idol-like singing competition at the Metropolitan Room in New York, and that's when a lot of things began to change for me.
In what would become a trademark performance, Bufford uncorked a smoldering version of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" from a woman's point of view. She knocked it out of the park with the line: "I shot a man in Reno -- just to watch him die."
Soon, cabaret critics began delivering raves. Will Friedwald in the Wall Street Journal wrote: "It turns out that the great Sophie Tucker was not, in fact, the last of the Red Hot Mamas. That title can now be claimed by the young Ms. Carole Bufford." Added Danielle Micelli, with New York Cabaret Today.com: "Don't miss Bufford. She is a showstopper and a true force of nature."
Today Bufford's got reviews to die for, a voice that kills and a repertoire of showstoppers that's steadily growing. "She's ready for the next level," said Siegel, musing about her future.
She could be cast in Broadway shows, but if I had to gaze into my crystal ball, I'd hope the next thing for Carole is that she'll get seen by someone who could put her on TV. The camera would love her. She'd be discovered through the Tonight Show or something like that -- and rise to the next level of national awareness.
For now, Bufford is busy creating her next show ("I've got the idea for it scrawled on a cocktail napkin on my desk") and preparing for her performances in Long Beach. She's also got shows coming up in Palm Beach on Feb. 10-14 at the Colony, where she'll be performing "speak easy," a Prohibition-era show with the Grand Street Stompers, and a March 30th appearance in West Palm Beach with Michael Feinstein and the Kravis Center Pops Orchestra.
"The main thing is to continue what I'm doing, and make the music exciting for people of all ages, wherever I go," she said. "I can do that. I love to do that. To me, it's the biggest thrill of all."
Carole J. Bufford will be performing "Body and Soul" at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach on January 21 and 22 with shows at 7 p.m. (562) 985-7000