Cabaret Life NYC: Ann Hampton Callaway Has Become The Quintessential Queen of 54 Below
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by Stephen Hanks
Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
As much as I hate to admit it, as a chronicler/reviewer of the New York cabaret scene for just a tad more than two years, there are many singers who are long-time performers in the genre that I haven't yet seen, let alone reviewed. Ann Hampton Callaway had been one of those names I'd only heard about from friends and colleagues-and the reviews were glowing. So I was more than anxious to hear Callaway's Streisand Songbook at 54 Below (for which she is currently leading in the BroadwayWorld.com Cabaret Awards voting for both the "Tribute Show" and "Show of the Year" categories) at the end of this past September, which was followed up almost two months later with another 54 Below show featuring her own compositions. The latter was a two-date run that the club commissioned for post-Thanksgiving and post-Hurricane Sandy, confident that in spite of the timing Callaway could bring in an audience-which she did.
The upshot? Although Callaway has been performing as a nightclub nightingale for around 30 years, I feel like I've caught her act when she's in the absolute prime of her career. Because while 54 Below may have opened it's glorious nightclub in June with Broadway musical legend Patti LuPone, and subsequently booked an All-Star team of women musical theater standouts such as Marin Mazzie, Rebecca Luker, Faith Prince, Sheri Rene Scott, Leslie Uggams, and even Ann's sister Liz Callaway, it's only fitting that a charismatic cabaret chanteuse and down-to-earth diva like Ann Hampton Callaway (who also has a Tony nomination for Swing! on her resume) has become the quintessential Queen of 54 Below.
My wife Bea and I decided to see Callaway's Streisand Songbook on our anniversary on September 27th, the third show of seven Ann would perform over five days that month. I was a bit bummed when we were seated at the side of the stage, house right, but reviewers on freebies the night of a sold-out show don't always rate. But it turned out to be a serendipitous situation when a couple in their 70s, Sue and Stephen (nice spelling, big guy), were placed at our table. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, we learned our table mates were f-ANN-atics who had first caught Callaway's act in the early '80s on the radio and during a brief bit in a Manhattan revue.
"We were so impressed with Ann," Stephen related, "that we eventually went to see her at Ted Hook's Backstage on 45th Street. The only negative I remember was that she was a bit ballsy on stage, but she was such a good performer and singer and we've been big fans ever since. We try to never pass up a chance to hear her sing."
With that endorsement ringing in my ears, out came Callaway wearing an elegant, black, floor-length evening dress and a demeanor that reeked of confidence and accessibility. During this show-and again in her own songbook show in November-she would refer to herself as a "Diva," in that almost self-mocking way that makes a woman anything but. As she proved throughout her performances, Callaway's intimacy with her audience and saucy sense of humor clearly makes her the Diva for the 47 percent.
At this point in her career, Callaway dazzles on pretty much an kind of song and singing style. She can jazz jam, blues riff, belt Broadway ballads, and could probably cook on country classics (I'd love to hear her do some Patsy Cline). For the Streisand show (directed superbly by Dan Foster), she opened with a jazzy, upbeat version of David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr.'s "Starting Here, Starting Now," complete with a "scooby-dooby" scat midway. Her deep, rich and sensual alto kept the audience rapt on a cool, jazzy arrangement of "A Sleepin' Bee" and a bluesy "Cry Me a River," featuring nifty piano work from Musical Director Ted Rosenthal. In Callaway's more jazzy vocal arrangements-like on "River"-you never quite know where she is going but you definitely want to take the journey with her. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
On the E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen song "Down With Love" (from Streisand's 1963 second album), which Callaway jokingly insisted was for "the single and bitter people," she led the audience in some finger-snapping to a swinging, bass heavy beat that featured terrific solos from Rosenthal, Martin Wind on bass and Tim Horner on drums. "You're just as good as Barbra," a woman shouted after the number, and Callaway responded to that sacrilege by telling the 54 Below wait staff, "Whatever you're pouring into those drinks, keep it coming." She then sang "Lazy Afternoon" as if she was lounging on a Diva-sized bed and beckoning a lover to join her on a rainy, sex-drenched day. Ann then revealed her interpretation chutzpah, nailing a swinging, up-tempo arrangement of Paul Williams' "Evergreen."
Speaking of chutzpah, what other word can you use to describe what it takes to write a song for Streisand during a time when, as Callaway admits, "My career in piano bars was booming." But 10 years after she wrote the lovely, pop power ballad "At the Same Time," Babs recorded it for her platinum-selling 1997 album "Higher Ground." At that point the show was still far from its emotional high ground. After Callaway boisterously belted "Don't Rain on My Parade," she was visibly passionate on "People," which is "the song that made me fall in love with Barbra."
By now, like Stephen and Sue, I was gradually becoming a fellow f-ANN-atic, but the next song sealed the deal. Ann commandeered the piano for "I've Dreamed of You," the lyric she wrote to a Rolf Lovland melody that Streisand specifically commissioned from Callaway for her 1998 marriage to actor James Brolin. As Callaway sang her beautiful wedding vow words, I was finding it quite difficult to focus given the watery mist that was enveloping my eyes.
Now here we stand
Ann, c'mon, what were you doing to me? It's my anniversary, for crissakes. My eyes had barely dried out when the waterworks started again as Callaway did an awesomely soaring rendition of "A Piece of Sky" from Yentl.
As my wife and I made great use of our table napkins during the almost anti-climatic ending medley, "On A Clear Day"/ "Happy Days Are Here Again," Sue noticed our teary eyes. "See, we told you." They sure did.
When I caught Callaway again at 54 Below almost two months later for her show Written by Ann Hampton Callaway or as she cleverly called it, "An evening of ANNdards," I hosted a table mate on the other end of the age spectrum. Lindsay Roginsky is a beautiful and statuesque brunette in her 20s and a talented singer/dancer who has played Roxie Hart in The Road Company of Chicago, and the Moulin Rouge headliner La Goulue in the Off-Broadway Musical The Fartiste (for which I was a co-producer last year). Lindsay is another devout Callaway f-ANN-actic who raved to me about Ann's original songs. She insisted that I spend Black Friday buying into Callaway's colorful and eclectic songbook, which consists of more than 300 tunes about, as Ann says, "Wit, whimsy, and ballad bondage." Once I heard that Fifty Shades of Grey-like description from Callaway's seductive voice early in the show, I was more than willing to be sung to while tied to a 54 Below banquette.
With Ted Rosenthal again at the keyboard, Martin Wind back on bass, and Sherrie Maricle on drums (who was excellent during Day Two of the October Cabaret Convention), Callaway's songbook gig was more casual than the Streisand run, but just as consistently solid and one that really allowed her to display her affinity for singing almost any song style. She opened with "Music," her upbeat homage to Jobim-like bossa nova that featured a cool bebop scat, and followed with "The I'm-Too-White-to-Sing-the-Blues, Blues," a song with a funny, self-deprecating lyric that has been covered by numerous cabaret singers. Then she used her smokey alto to great effect on the torchy and sensual love ballad "I Gaze in Your Eyes," for which she wrote the music to a Cole Porter lyric and that was subsequently published by the master's estate, making Callaway the only person to be a Porter co-writer. I mean how cool is that?
The rest of the set was a fun melange of jazzy, up-tempo songs ("Hip to Be Happy," "Manhattan in December," and "Finding Beauty") mixed with those "bondage" ballads like the jazzy, sensual, and seductive lounge lizard song "Slow," the exquisite Broadway-esque power ballad "Where Does Love Go," the lovely "Revelation" (the music for which she wrote to a Robert Frost poem), and again "I've Dreamed of You," the song she composed for her BFF Barbra's wedding. In between were delicious post-Thanksgiving Day treats such as "The Nanny Named Fran," the ditty that became the theme song for the Fran Drescher TV hit The Nanny (during which Ann's sister Liz, photo above, and her nephew Nick Foster sang backup from their banquette), and "God Bless My Family," where Liz took the stage to add her sweet soprano to Ann's rich alto to produce wonderful sisterly harmonies. (I immediately longed to hear the Callaways channel Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen and sing Irving Berlin's "Sisters" from the film White Christmas.) Callaway also showed off her improv flair at the piano, taking word suggestions from the audience to instantaneously produce a raucously funny song called "Love Sucks."
What doesn't suck is Ann Hampton Callaway's songwriting. Her jazzy compositions are ideal for her vocal style, which can jump from an intoxicating deep alto to an enchanting mezzo-soprano vibrato in a nanosecond. While there can be something of a sameness to her ballads in tone, style, and structure-especially once you hear many of them within a set as during this show-even the lesser tunes are still compelling enough to stick with and appreciate. And the obvious joy Callaway exudes in her singing and the pride she takes in her original songs easily overcomes any flaws in the writing.
"So, aren't her songs great?" my wide-eyed young friend Lindsay asked before her idol's encore, a yearning for confirmation in her voice. "Perfect," I replied. Sure enough, right on cue, that was the title of the next lovely ANNdard. And I'm sure it won't be the last, especially at 54 Below. Save me a banquette seat. -End-