Review: To Steve With Love: Liz Callaway Celebrates Sondheim at Kennedy Center

Liz Callaway embodies and breathes the essence of Stephen Sondheim.

By: Jan. 23, 2024
Review: To Steve With Love: Liz Callaway Celebrates Sondheim at Kennedy Center
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Liz Callaway embodies and breathes the essence of Stephen Sondheim. In the very personal and professional tribute concert To Steve With Love: Liz Callaway Celebrates Sondheim, there is an utter fusion of the performer’s love and respect for her musical mentor and the choice and intimate presentation of the Sondheim songs that Ms. Callaway interprets.

The evening of Sondheim at Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater unfolded like a theatrical valentine to Sondheim, with exceptional fluidity and polish. Quicksilver transitions from dramatic and comedic interludes to the actual songs are managed so deftly by renowned singer and actress/Broadway veteran Liz Callaway that I felt as if I was being whisked away on a voyage of musical discovery and emotional reminiscing.

A rush of emotions came over me, as Ms. Callaway spoke of her experience seeing Company for the first time and of being cast in the original production of Merrily, We Roll Along. I was reminded of my early (and now “life-long”) love affair with Sondheim and being cast in the first U.S. community theatre production of A Little Night Music after the Broadway run.

Dressed in a striking black ensemble, Ms. Callaway’s crystalline clear vocal tones were backed by an excellent three-piece instrumental ensemble with Alex Rybeck on piano, Ritt Henn on bass and Ron Tierno on drums.

The opening number “Broadway Baby” (from Follies) was sung with dry wit as Ms. Callaway interspersed narrative snippets about the coincidence of the Alvin Theatre being the same theatre where she saw the original cast of Company and where she also opened in Merrily, We Roll Along.

Ms. Callaway’s renditions of “Old Friends” and “Like It Was” (from Merrily We Roll Along) were full of authenticity and charm.

The ultimate New York city “survivor” song “What More Do I Need?” was sung with a fiercely stoic attitude before Ms. Callaway launched into a vibrant and pulsating cover of the passionate “The Miller’s Son”.

“What Do We Do? We Fly!” (with Music by Richard Rodgers and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) from Do I Hear A Waltz, was a comic tour de force ---acted to the comedic hilt---about the anguish of flying.

From the little-known television special Evening Primrose, the songs of wistful dreaming of seeing the world “I Remember” and “Take Me To The World” were transcendently moving due to Ms. Callaway’s haunting vocals.

Differing ways of looking at the world between a mother and son were evoked by Ms. Callaway with a beautiful rendition of the soothing lullaby “Not While I’m Around “(from Sweeney Todd) and, in contrast, the pessimistic and fatalistic “Now You Know” (from Merrily We Roll Along).

Proof that Sondheim can write melodies as glorious as his lyrics (a retort to those who say Sondheim is not “hum-able”) was conveyed as Ms. Callaway sang the heartbreaking melodies of “In Buddy’s Eyes” (from Follies) and the rapturous “Loving You” (from Passion—sung to cries of “bravo”).

Ms. Callaway’s son, Nicholas Callaway Foster, joined with his mother onstage to sing the marvelous song of making choices “Move On” (from Sunday in the Park with George). This duet gained added emotional power with the interesting choice of pairing mother and son onstage.

“Another Hundred Lyrics”, with additional lyrics by Lauren Mayer, was another amusing arrangement that conveyed the comic chops of Ms. Callaway. The almost insane courage and stress inherent in singing Sondheim at times was accentuated with the melody of Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” and the neurotic, frantic lyrics of “I’m Not Getting Married Today” intermixed with Ms. Mayer’s satiric ear for the obsessive yet extraordinarily rewarding wordplay of Sondheim.

The often interpreted “Send in the Clowns” has now been performed by almost every singer alive but Ms. Callaway gives it a fresh rendering here. Ms. Callaway emphasized the irony and dry farce of the piece with a very discerning ear.

The endearingly frank “With So Little To Be Sure Of” (from Anyone Can Whistle) was a fitting finale to this concert----for, indeed, the message inherent in Sondheim to hold on to what you know and love is highlighted throughout this perceptive concert.

The legacy of the legendary Stephen Sondheim was expressed by the talented Liz Callaway with nostalgia, affection, and a very human respect in this alternately delightful and moving concert.

Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission

To Steve With Love: Liz Callaway Celebrates Sondheim was presented on Saturday, January 20, 2024 at 7:30pm at the Kennedy Center located at 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20566.

Photo Credit: Liz Callaway. Photo by Bill Westmoreland.