Happily Ever Laughter: Liz Callaway and Jason Graae

Liz Callaway and Jason Graae met at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and bonded during 1980’s Equity Library Theater production of Godspell. They were one another’s dates at pivotal events and sang at each other’s weddings. It shows. Familiarity and appreciation override ersatz derogatory quips.

Booked (elsewhere) to perform An Evening with Liz Callaway and Jason Graae, they were startled to find the show’s title arbitrarily changed to Backstage Broadway Buddies – now a clever, mash-up opening number. Not for nothing do the veterans have mutual esteem and the terrific Alex Rybeck as musical director.

The term is stuffed into songs like a hiccough: “Nights are long since you went away/I think about you all through the day/My backstage Broadway buddy…” (from “My Buddy” – Walter Donaldson/ Gus Kahn) ; “ Life is slow but it seems exciting/’Cause my backstage Broadway buddy’s there…”(from “In Buddy’s Eyes” – Stephen Sondheim). Lemons into lemonade. Clever.

Liz Callaway (Photo: Alix Cohen)

Reference to “sitting in bars and talking” back then introduces “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (Burt Bacharach/Hal David) – a sketchy connection. Performance is matey and unvarnished. Callaway’s lyric line, “to remind you,” curves above like a rainbow. Nor does “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” (Richard Rodgers/ Lorenz Hart) make sequential sense, though again, performance is engaging. Graae’ s oboe solo, beginning with comic wrong notes, peppered with a few distressed facial expressions, in fact, arrives well played. “Follow THAT!” he declares leaving the stage.

“West End Avenue”(Stephen Schwartz) is tied in with Callaway’s having performed the song in her first act and Graae’s literally having lived on the street at the time. It’s lyrically smart. The vocalist’s voice soars, but never overwhelms or diminishes story telling. As with cards, she knows when to hold’m, and when to fold’m.

Jason Graae, Liz Callaway (Photo: Maryann Lopinto)

Turnabout offers a duet from Richard Maltby, Jr./David Shire’s Baby in which Callaway appeared as young, pregnant Lizzie, and one (here featuring MD/pianist Rybeck on vocal) from Forever Plaid for which Graae played Sparky in the original quartet (Pat Barrett/ Rudi Maugeri). The latter is a highlight, emerging with the bonhomie of back porch harmony, nifty hand gestures and microphone stands tipped in unison.

John Bucchino’s “It Feels Like Home,” the song Callaway gifted Graae and his husband at their wedding, floats in on delicate, earnest timbre. “Yes, we have come from a long way,” she sings as eyes momentarily close. It’s just lovely. Graae prefaces two ballads with feelings for “Glen Fretwell at Glen Fretwell Landscape Design.” (He even gives us a phone number.) “What More Can I Say?” (William Finn) and “Married” (John Bucchino) are rife with gravitas and grace. Callaway gazes at her friend with palpable affection.

Alex Rybeck, Jason Graae (Photo: Maryann Lopinto)

Callaway’s sympathetic story about finally being cast as an animated Disney character – Anastasia – followed by her glorious renditions of two songs, should perhaps be laid to rest awhile. Graae’s anecdotes about his work as the voice of the Lucky Charms (cereal) leprechaun (also perhaps time to retire) is followed by an angry-when-fired, “How Lucky Can You Get” (John Kander/Fred Ebb) during which he drolly mangles a box. “But I’m not bitter.”

“It Takes Two” and “Old Friends” (Stephen Sondheim) are genial and apt; warm and plain spoken. We don’t need the overused “Anything You Can Do” (Irving Berlin). “Nice” (Stephen Flaherty/Lynn Ahrens) is rarely included and fits like a puzzle piece: “You were impossible, unbearable/My nerves were almost unrepairable/But now that it’s through, it was nice…” suggests just the right mix of regard and wit.

Jason Graae and Liz Callaway (Photo: Jeff Harnar)

“The next seven songs we’d like to do…” heralds tonight’s encore, “You’ll Never Get Away From Me” (Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim) with slight mugging, but mostly love. The show is a wellspring of talent wrapped in genuine friendship, shared by three of our best.

Opening Photo Maryann Lopinto

Liz Callaway and Jason Graae: Happily Ever Laughter
MD/Piano Alex Rybeck
54Below 
254 West 54th Street

About Alix Cohen (1793 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.