Reviewed by Steve Murray for Cabaret Scenes March 15, 2018
Venetian Room, San Francisco, March 11, 2018
Yes, it’s only March, but I just saw the cabaret show of the year, provided by the incomparable talent of Liz Callaway. I can now use this show as the yardstick by which to measure all future shows, hoping others can reach as high as this sparkling evening of song and story. Making her solo debut at the hallowed Venetian Room, Callaway earned her place among the giants who have come before her.
Backed by her longtime pianist and arranger Alex Rybeck, whose light, lyrical style perfectly complements Callaway’s vocals, the arrangements were so concise and efficient that they even elevated the performances of two fine Bay Area musicians, bassist Daniel Fabricant and percussionist David Rokeach. There were moments of Fabricant’s bowing and Rokeach’s brush strokes that were sublime.
So it goes when you’re backing one of the finest vocalists in the business. Callaway has a shining résumé on stage, screen, recording and in concert performances. Much respected by her peers, she’s twice been chosen as Barbra Streisand’s stand-in for tours. Like Streisand, Eder, and very few others, Callaway has the perfect voice. You know it when you hear it: great technique, control, and elegant phrasing. She chooses a song and makes it sing. I would love an attempt at describing every number she did in this show, but it wouldn’t do her justice—there were too many outstanding highlights.
Rybeck mashed up “Make Someone Happy” (Jule Styne/Betty Comden/Adolph Green) with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s gorgeous “Something Wonderful.” Callaway followed that amazing arrangement with Stephen Schwartz’s “Meadowlark” from The Baker’s Wife. It’s one of those perfect storytelling songs that whisk you away to a special place only great musical numbers can. It’s a popular choice for many female singers, but is made magical in Callaway’s skilled hands. She is blessed to have Rybeck in her corner. He provides a sly mashup of Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” with the classic “Singin’ in the Rain” (Arthur Freed/Nacio Herb Brown). Callaway is singing “Singin’ in the Rain,” but the melody is “Raindrops,” delightfully confusing the musical brain.
She has plenty of history to draw on, and she delves back to her Broadway debut with the poignant “Not a Day Goes By” from Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, the clarity and purity of her voice wringing the emotion out the lyric. From an off-Broadway show that never quite made it, she offers up “Since You Stayed Here” from Josh Rubins and Peter Larson’s Brownstone. It’s a lovely ballad and a perfect match for Callaway’s luminous delivery.
On her way to a Sondheim tribute in the U.K., Callaway said she had to learn a few songs she had never performed. Launching into “Another Hundred People” from Company, she went up on the complicated lyrics and quick meter, two attempts, and she asked the audience for the lyric. But fear not, it was just a fun set-up for a faux version of the song with special lyrics by Lauren Mayer that highlights how difficult it is to sing Sondheim’s tongue-twisting lyrics. It’s a huge crowd favorite.
Callaway, Rybeck, Fabricant, Rokeach and some amazing song selections made this a transcendent musical happening. Callaway closed with “The Story Goes On,” the first act closer from her Tony-nominated performance in Baby. Feeling her baby kick for the first time and finding no one to share it with, her character sings of the continuity of life that she’s become a part of. When she sings “Oh, I was young/ I’d forgot how things outlive me/My goal was the kick that life would give me/ And now like a joke something moves to let me know our story goes on,” you can feel her maternal instincts kicking in and her epiphany is palpable. A fitting end for a sensational show. Thankfully, Liz Callaway will go on and on and on.