Liz Callaway: For the Record

 

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by Fred Cohen

The Emmy-award winning Liz Callaway, for the record, performed at the Metropolitan Room on July 28 for the first time in five years. She explained that she wanted to record specific tracks in front of a live audience for an upcoming CD “The Essential Liz Callaway,” hence the name of her show. (Recent fans, of course, will not know what a “record” is; that pun is not long for this world.) The house was more than over-booked and the audience did not have to be convinced.

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Callaway was accompanied by Ron Tierno on drums and Jered Egan on bass—together providing a seamless foundation—under the always able musical direction of Alex Rybeck. Among professionals Callaway has a reputation for making it look easy. Callaway’s selections were varied and interesting, with few standards and more than customary poignancy. The assurance of her performance dispenses with any nervousness for the performer that otherwise detracts from the evening, especially one incorporating such complex material. That reputation made it surprising that, more than once, a song had to be begun anew. Only later, after some false starts to a Sondheim favorite, did it seem likely that we had been expertly set up for a later surprise, but I’ll never be sure.

Callaway--3Callaway has both the stagecraft and experience to know how to connect with her audience. Her voice is a tad darker than in her youth, but vibrant and supple still; it retains the edge that conveys with artful subtlety the often unarticulated affecting emotions of the lyrics. Her pitch is perfect, both musically and emotionally.

Callaway opened the show with “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story to create anticipation. This was followed by a rendition of her original audition piece, a piece she reportedly would voice, regardless of the type of number requested: “Be a Lion” (Charlie Smalls) from The Wiz.

Callaway--Header shotThis was followed by Billy Joel’s “So It Goes,” a particularly tender song suggested by her son Nicholas: “So I would choose to be with you/ That’s if the choice were mine to make/ But you can make decisions too/ And you can have this heart to break/ And so it goes, and so it goes/ And you’re the only one who knows.

Callaway related having been asked to perform at the 90th birthday party of Hal David, and swooned at having performed there with Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick, Johnny Mathis and Stevie Wonder. She thought David had been overshadowed by Bacharach’s razzle-dazzle and, to demonstrate, performed a haunting version of David’s “Ninety Nine Miles from LA” (written with Albert Hammond).

Alex Rybeck

Sondheim (with whom Callaway has enjoyed great success) made his obligatory appearance. She began with “What More Do I Need” followed hard on by “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Not a Day Goes By.” Then she attacked Company’s “Another Hundred People,” but suffered two false starts and let slip a seemingly involuntary expletive. After a brief consultation with Alex Rybeck, the intro started up once more and, launching into the lyrics a third time, Callaway broke into an infrequently heard satire (lyrics by Lauren Mayer, music by Stephen Sondheim) on the intractability of Sondheim’s music, breaking up her audience: “Another hundred lyrics just flew out of my brain . . .”

Carly Simon’s “Coming Around Again” was transformed for the milieu and rendered with room-filling dynamics. Callaway followed with the heart-breaking “I’ll be Here” from Ordinary Days, offered to her by composer Adam Gwon. Annually Callaway hosts “Broadway Bound” at Merkin Hall to showcase up and coming Broadway aspirants and Gwon was one such protégé. His narrator relates a light and lovely first meeting with John, the man she ultimately married: “I’ll be here at the corner of Bleecker and Mercer tomorrow at 7/ if you want to meet up I’ll be waiting right here/And in case there are two fellows waiting for you, my name’s John.” John promised “I’ll always be here,” but when ultimately we understand that she is responding to John’s voicemail left on September 11, the audience gasped and tears were shed.

Lightening the tone, Callaway described her job as a stand-in (not understudy) for Barbara Streisand. The job was accompanied by an extensive nondisclosure agreement. Her role was to learn the upcoming Streisand show and its possible variations and to perform numbers on demand. This is to better enable the director to assess lights, sound and stage direction. It involved hours of being repeatedly called under hot lights in a New Jersey ice hockey arena to voice Streisand standards for the director: Barbara Streisand. No pressure there. Callaway dedicated the final song of the evening to all in the Metropolitan Room sharing the event: “People” (Styne/Merrill) forever associated with Streisand but rendered in her own, more personal style. She brought the house down. After thanking the Met Room staff and her musicians, she closed with “I Happen to Like New York” (from Cole Porter’s The New Yorkers), a perennial favorite here that has stood the test of time with astonishing freshness.

Callaway got no more than a few feet from the stage before being called back for an encore, a Flaherty/Ahrens number from Ragtime: “Back to Before.” That number provided a near perfect bookend to the opening number and left the room buzzing and applauding with obvious contentment. Almost the entire audience then queued to express their personal admiration to Callaway.

All photographs by FredCohenPhotography. To see more of Fred Cohen’s cabaret photography, visit his website.

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