BWW Reviews: Chronicling Her Life's Turning Points In Story and Song, Ann Hampton Callaway Produces Yet Another Stunning Show at 54 Below
Last year at this time, Ann Hampton Callaway beamed love from the stage. This November, she's a newlywed. Though the musical life journey she shared last night at the opening of her new 54 Below show, Turning Points, contains a couple of dark numbers, on the whole it's celebratory. Callaway is incandescent. You'll feel it in your bones.
An inimitable interpretation of "Turn! Turn! Turn!," part jazz, part praise-the-heavens gospel, sums up what appears to be abiding faith in the universe. Our collective spirits rise. Her first turning point? Birth. "Is it a boy or a girl?" the obstetrician was asked. "Mrs. Callaway, it's a diva!" "No pressure, there," she quips.
The artist's own composition, "I Sing" "...When the tide gets rough/Words are not enough..." is a lush Cha-cha. Sybaritic piano embellishment fits like lace trim on velvet. Round-edged scat closes. I'm surprised not to have heard this lovely number from other singers. Attention, vocalists.
An anecdote about failing to get into college music studies follows, then quick on its heels, stubborn rebound with a bright, bouncy "Pick Yourself Up." This animated composite features distinctive genre scat. To my ears: Bach "doodle, oodle doo," jazz "shubba dabba dop, shu bop bop," and opera "ba da dom um . . . ev'rybody sing along!"
"That philosophy came in very handy..." prefaces a highpoint of the evening, the re-imagining of Lennon and McCartney's "He's (She's) Leaving Home." Unhurried piano, the stroke of consoling brushes and melancholy, bowed bass support phrasing you'll never hear again. Callaway digs deep performing as if watching the scenario play out in real time. The song is potent. But who . . . left home? Her father? She herself?
Not getting into the college musical program of her choice fueled determination. "You're Gonna Hear From Me" Callaway sings emitting buttery notes long enough to tie in bows. New York is next and perhaps first love, followed by disappointment. Her rendition of "It Never Entered My Mind" is still and bruised. Breathing becomes silent lyric.
"After 21 years in New York, I get this interesting message, people were looking for an Ann Hampton Callaway type high and low. Obviously they didn't look low enough at first. I finally became an overnight sensation." A titanic "Blues in the Night," highpoint #2, may be from her breakout appearance. Showcasing power, control, and gut-wrenching emotionality, the vocalist finesses, riffs, and wrangles octaves like a skilled cowboy with herd of errant calves. Music courses through her, now a bend, now a head jerk or sweeping open-handed gesture. It's an exorcism. The room goes crazy.
John Bucchino's "Grateful," also featured in last year's Thanksgiving weekend run, ranges from prayer to anthem, referring both to a bout with illness and to finally finding her life partner, Kari Strand. "I've been the Goldilocks of love-this chair's too hard, this one's too soft . . . " No more. Callaway's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" sung to that face in a booth along the wall, savors every moment of shimmering memory. Piano arpeggios tickle. Her own "Finding Beauty" exalts in the feeling. Vocals swoop as if skywriting. "Sadie, Sadie (Married Lady)" puts the cherry on top. Her blushing bride is unaccustomed as yet to public expressions of love. The rest of us share in Callaway's glee.
The performer looks radiant and glam. Through line is candid and wry. Personal magnetism is up full throttle. Musicianship is stellar. In particular at this show, Tim Horner's eloquent, finessed percussion is a wow. A wonderful evening on all counts.
Turning Points Ann Hampton Callaway
Directed by Dan Foster
Musical Director/Piano: Ted Rosenthal; Bass: Martin Wind; Drums: Tim Horner
54 Below, 254 West 54th St.
Through November 29 (excluding November 27)
Photo by Stephen Sorokoff