BWW Reviews: 'Cockeyed Optimist' Liz Callaway Captures Audience Hearts at 54 Below Debut
Cabaret Review by Stephen Hanks
Liz Callaway had me when she said she was a Mets fan.
Okay, maybe that isn't enough to earn a thumbs-up cabaret show review so how about this? Callaway's performance last night in her new 54 Below show Coming Around Again was like a deceptively fast R.A. Dickey knuckleball floating toward the plate before rising and exploding past a hitter's late swing. It was like David Wright lashing out at an outside corner slider and depositing it into the right field porch at Citi Field. I could go on with the baseball metaphors for Liz's show, but the Mets don't have that many accomplished players these days.
Suffice to say, the show (smoothly directed by Callaway’s husband Dan Foster) was definitely a home run and coming six weeks after her sister Ann Hampton Callaway similarly wowed the 54 Below crowd with her Barbra Streisand Tribute Show, you can make a case that this sister act would make the best heart-of-the-order duo in any cabaret/nightclub singing lineup. "This feels like opening night," Callaway admitted early in the show, in response to the lusty audience cheering that continued throughout her 15-song set. Liz hadn’t exactly been Lady Luck the night before, as her official opening night ran smack into the follow up Nor'easter to Hurricane Sandy and suppressed attendance almost as much as the Republicans tried to suppress voting during the Presidential election.
But the second night crowd came loaded for Liz and were with her from her opening number "You There In the Back Row," from Cy Coleman's ill-fated musical 10 Days to Broadway. Callaway's set was an eclectic mix of staples from her performing catalog, Broadway show tunes, some familiar pop songs, and a couple of hilarious parodies, such as her second number, “I Gotta Be Me,” where with her sister Ann beaming from a 54 Below banquet, Liz offered lyrics hinting at a faux sibling rivalry. "She writes her own songs/I can't write at all" and "She's got 10 MAC Awards/That's only nine more than me."
Callaway has always been warm, adorable, and accessibly down-to-earth on stage, and coupled with her sweet and deceptively powerful Disney-heroine soprano, she can transform a rather cheesy pop ballad like "I Won't Last a Day Without You," into a lovely song of introspection and longing. Then she can turn on a dime and deliver a swinging arrangement of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man" that would have even had Rodgers and Hammerstein bouncing in their seats.
While it's a shame that this Mary Martin clone has never played Nellie Forbush in South Pacific (she was also delicious on the "A Cockeyed Optimist" finale), as Callaway revealed during the show, she did recently get to serve as a rehearsal stand-in for Barbra Streisand at the legend's recent shows opening the new Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn. Callaway had to learn 45 Babs songs and quipped that "I actually started believing I directed Yentl," before going all power ballad on "Being Good (Isn't Good Enough)" from the 1967 Tony Award-winning Best Musical Hallelujah, Baby (written by Julie Styne, Adolph Green and Betty Comden). When she followed with a lullaby-like rendition of Stephen Sondheim's "Not While I'm Around" from Sweeney Todd (featuring enchanting bass support from Jered Egan), you just wanted to jump to the stage and curl up in her arms.
After a lovely version of the Billy Joel ballad, "And So It Goes," Callaway offered a mini-tribute to Hal David and Marvin Hamlisch, both of whom died earlier this year. Music Director/pianist Alex Rybeck, drummer Ron Tierno and Egan played a fun arrangement and supplied nifty backing vocals on Burt Bacharach and David's "Always Something There (To Remind Me).” Callaway was then compellingly haunting on the David lyric of "99 Miles From L.A." (a mini-hit in 1975 for Albert Hammond, who also wrote the melody), and she was inspiring on the Hamlisch and Ed Kleban song "Music and the Mirror" from A Chorus Line. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
Of all the great tunes in the Carly Simon songbook, you don't often hear "Coming Around Again," in a cabaret show, but Callaway's version is stirring and flawless, as is her rendition of "The Story Goes On" the David Shire/Richard Maltby, Jr. classic from the 1983 musical Baby, which helped earn Callaway a Tony nomination and has become one of her signature songs. But the highlight of the evening may have been Callaway's second parody number, "Another 100 Lyrics," the Lauren Mayer sendup of Stephen Sondheim's "Another 100 People" from Company. Callaway had her audience both stunned and in stitches as in this tour de force she reeled off the lines in rapid-fire riffs, as if she was John Moschitta in those classic old Fed Ex TV spots.
Another hundred lyrics just flew out of my brain,
As I stand here on stage,
With another hundred lyrics that I'll never recall,
And on every damn page,
There's another hundred lyrics that'll drive me insane,
Right in front of you all,
'Cause the words are a pain--
Not to mention the sprawl,
Of the melody.
But we're all singing Sondheim;
Some songs are sweet; some are strange.
We're all singing Sondheim;
There's not one tune in my range,
And every song
Is too damn long."
Based on the raucous audience response to Callaway's performance, two things are fairly certain: Her show wasn't too damn long and everyone could have sat through another 100 songs. If only the Mets could be this good.
Liz Callaway's Show, Coming Around Again, will be at 54 Below tonight at 8:30 pm and 11 pm, November 10 at 8:30 pm and 11 pm, and November 11 at 9 pm. 54 Below is at 254 West 54th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue).