Cabaret Life NYC: Ann Hampton Callaway Has Become The Quintessential Queen of 54 Below
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
Hand in hand this blessed day
I promise you
As I give to you my heart
In this world shall keep us apart
Ever after be
The man I'll love until the very end
I've dreamed of you
My great love and my best friend
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-