By Brian Scott Lipton
To paraphrase the title of one of the songs in her brilliant tribute to the 1960s, “The Beat Goes On,” no one owns Liz Callaway. More importantly, few vocalists own the stage with the same confidence, clarity and intelligence as this Broadway and cabaret favorite – and it’s these singular qualities that help lift this superb show from a mere act of nostalgia into an evening of both rare enlightenment and entertainment.
Not to mention, the show itself is an act of bravery. In tackling the approximately 20 tunes chosen for this 90-minute set (many taken from her 2001 album of the same name), Callaway deliberately challenges the memories of some of the greatest singers of that decade: Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Dionne Warwick, Petula Clark, Marilyn McCoo, John Denver, Liza Minnelli…and the list goes on. That Callaways matches, and sometimes even surpasses, their level should be no surprise to her fans.
In some cases, Callaway and her talented trio of musicians stick closely to these classic’s original arrangements; if you are old enough (like me), you can imagine yourself back in your bedroom in the 1960s singing along to “Downtown,” “Frank Mills” or “When I’m 64”.
But, thanks in large part to her great musical director Alex Rybeck, Callaway puts her own stamp on some of these timeless tunes; there’s a slightly sexy dreaminess to her take on the Fifth Dimension’s mega-hit “Up Up and Away” that’s far different from the feel-good version we know and love, a gorgeous melancholy to her rendition of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” and a plaintive profundity in her version of the Mamas and the Papas’ “Monday Monday,” you might not have realized was there.
The show also proves to be a great showcase for Callaway’s marvelously impressive vocal range; she can employ a subtle softness on songs such as “Both Sides Now,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and “Theme from Valley of the Dolls” that’s a stark contrast to her clarion belt on “Maybe This Time” or a stunning medley of “Promises, Promises” and “Knowing When to Leave”
Early on in the show, Callaway speaks of the similarities between the 1960s and today, but the differences are also pronounced at times, especially in her encore, the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” which she recently performed at a gay wedding. As a child of the 60s, I appreciate realizing where we’ve been and how far we’ve come (and how some things never change).
Moreover, to be honest, wouldn’t it be nice to leave every cabaret show feeling as groovy as I did exiting “The Beat Goes On”?
“Liz Callaway: The Beat Goes On” continues at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 West 54th Street) on July 28, July 29, and September 10. Visit www.54Below.com for tickets.
Photo: Maryann Lopinto