Cabaret Life NYC: Ann Hampton Callaway Has Become The Quintessential Queen of 54 Below
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.)