Ann Hampton Callaway is the reason I stopped reviewing cabaret shows.
Okay, perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, but unlike any statement out of the mouth of our current President, it’s partially true. During the four years between November 2010 (when I wrote my first cabaret review) and the end of 2014, I critiqued approximately 200-plus shows, originally for Cabaret Scenes Magazine and then for BroadwayWorld.com as their New York cabaret editor and lead reviewer. From September 2012 (the first time I saw Callaway perform, let alone review her) until late November 2014, I reviewed an Ann Hampton Callaway show seven times (one being her duo show Sibling Revelry with younger sister Liz). Her show at 54 Below (before Michael Feinstein’s name was attached), Turning Points, was one of my final reviews overall.
When friends would ask me why I was quitting the reviewing scene cold turkey, I would tell them I thought I had said everything I could possibly say about the world of New York cabaret and its performers. Specifically, I had exhausted my allotment of superlatives with which to describe Ann Hampton Callaway. After all, there are only so many times one can go to their thesaurus and find adjectives that haven’t been plucked clean. I mean, for goodness sake, in December 2012, after she performed two different show runs at the club within two months, I anointed Callaway “the Quintessential Queen of 54 Below”—and at that point the room had only been open for six months. When I reviewed her November 2013 show at 54 Below—Songs I’d Wish I’d Written (my sixth Callaway critique)—I suggested someone invent an “Ann App,” a device that would just allow me to input her show set list and a bunch of glowing adjectives and the app would magically produce a 750-word rave.
But here I am again five years later musing on the People’s Cabaret Diva. It took learning that Ann was introducing a new Peggy Lee Tribute show (this past Sunday night at The Green Room 42) to push me off the wagon and round up the usual superlative suspects. Callaway has long had a vast repertoire of shows, but over the past decade she has been performing tributes to iconic women singers in what she calls her “Legacy Series.” The list of classic songbooks she has tackled reveals her impeccable instinct for selecting material as well as her range in both voice and genre—Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand, Sarah Vaughn, Linda Ronstadt, and now Peggy Lee.
When you scan the tour dates chart on Callaway’s website you wouldn’t think she’d need to create another new show. Yet, this lady is not only a sublime performer but a savvy one. Given that 2020 is “the Female Frank Sinatra’s” 100th birthday year, Ann got the fever and timed the show’s introduction with last week’s New York Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) Conference, a massive industry trade show at the Hilton Hotel where entertainers and singers attempt to seduce theater managers, artistic directors, agents, etc., from around the country into booking their shows. Callaway had already performed a 20-minute “showcase” of Fever!: The Peggy Lee Century at APAP earlier in the evening, then scurried with her band over to The Green Room to present an hour-long version.
Callaway has long been a fearless performer with chutzpah to spare so it wasn’t all that surprising when she announced that she began crafting this show—with her long-time musical director/pianist Ted Rosenthal, bass player Dean Johnson, and drummer Tim Horner—basically after the ball dropped on 2020. While the set understandably displayed some minor rough edges, Callaway and Company have plenty of time for polishing until she brings it back to New York and Feinstein’s/54 Below three weeks before Lee’s centennial birthday in May.
Opening the 13-song set with “I Love Being Here With You” was a natural in message and tempo, and Callaway was jazzy and smoky—almost whispery—right out of the chute. She followed with another jazzy arrangement—with her signature scat breaks—of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” the 1943 hit Lee recorded with the Benny Goodman Orchestra that sold more than one million copies and reached number four on the Billboard chart. Speaking of Billboard, it’s hard to believe that 1958’s “Fever” (originally written by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport) only reached number eight on that year’s chart considering that it’s arguably Lee’s most identifiable song. Callaway sensuously raised the room’s temperature with a percussion-only arrangement (which, unfortunately, was slightly hampered by an over-amplified bass, which was the case for most of the show). As Lee did with the original version of the tune, the songwriter in Ann couldn’t resist adding some additional lyrics.
After a pedestrian arrangement of 1945’s “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” Lee’s first original lyric to become a hit, the show really hit its stride five songs in with “The Folks Who Live On the Hill” (Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II) from Lee’s 1957 album “The Man I Love,” which was arranged by Nelson Riddle and conducted by—get this—Frank Sinatra (who urged Lee to sing the album’s songs like Billie Holiday). This is a ballad right in Callaway’s rangy wheelhouse and she sang it mostly in her deep, husky alto until needing to transition to head voice on a dime. On the next four numbers, Callaway went from bouncy (“Just One of Those Things,” Cole Porter), to Bossa nova (on Peggy and Sonny Burke’s “He’s a Tramp,” complete with dog woofs from the band), to bluesy on “Black Coffee,” the Sonny Burke/Paul Francis Webster song that was the title track on Lee’s first solo LP in 1953. Like the words in this torchy tune, Callaway’s vocal on this one was all “coffee and cigarettes.” Ann then admitted she was worried about singing the up-tempo Leiber and Stoller tune “I’m a Woman,” but she nailed it as a ballsy blues number.
There’s usually at least one tear-inducing song in every Callaway show—at least for me—and it finally came with Ann’s loving, haunting, and reverential rendition of “Johnny Guitar,” the lyric Lee wrote to Victor Young’s melody in 1954, 11 years before Peggy’s first of four husbands Dave Barbour died of a heart attack. Callaway’s finale was a jazz-light arrangement of ‘The Glory of Love,” before ending with an encore medley of the lullaby-like “Angels On My Pillow” into a tender “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
With 13 songs in just an hour-long set, even Callaway asked her audience one song before the finale if they were thinking, “Is That All There Is?,” before she dove into that 1969 Lee hit single. This might be a sacrilege to suggest, but Ann might want to consider replacing that dated cliché of a song going forward, especially when there are so many other classics in the Lee songbook. That said, if this ISN’T all there is—a few more songs, additional insightful patter, some snappier arrangements—a now solid Callaway show is destined to please the F-ANN-ATICS (and the booking managers) as another ANN-DARD— and I’ll be doing another deep dive into my thesaurus for superlatives.
Fever!: The Peggy Lee Century with Ann Hampton Callaway
Featuring: Ted Rosenthal: Piano; Dean Johnson: Bass; Tim Horner: Drums
Opening photo: Ted Rosenthal, Dean Johnson, Ann Hampton Callaway, Tim Horner
Photos by Stephen Hanks
The Green Room 42
570 10th Avenue
New York, NY
January 12, 2020