There’s a new place to hear live music in town and it’s exquisite. Old school movie house, short lived Nederlander venue (The Bethesda Theatre) turned live music venue, the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club has attracted an array of local and regional talent in recent months and this past weekend, a nationally-recognized artist graced its stage.
Ann Hampton Callaway is perhaps best known to musical theatre enthusiasts for her Tony Award-nominated performance in Swing in 2000, but she’s also made an exquisite career as an accomplished songwriter (penning over 250 songs) and as a singer known for putting her unique spin on well-known American songbook standards in jazz clubs and concert halls across the country.
The delightfully charming yet confident performer performed a selection of romantic and message-based songs that the legendary Barbra Streisand has performed throughout her long career and shared how Barbra has influenced her own career path. The set list also included two songs that Ann wrote for Barbra to perform – “I Dreamed of You,” which Ms. Streisand sang at her wedding and the anthem for peace, “At the Same Time.” Her stories about how this all came to be (Streisand performing her songs) reveal that persistence, tenacity, and sheer talent pay off.
As she admitted onstage, it’s a bold and nervy choice to ‘do Streisand’ to be sure, but this concert was not straight up ‘Ann tries to channel/impersonate Barbra.’ Rather, Ms. Hampton Callaway – together with her exquisite musical director/pianist Ted Rosenthal, bassist Martin Wind and drummer Tim Horner – put a unique spin on songs that Barbra made famous or covered at one point. From jazz to pop to showtunes, she proved that, like Barbra herself, she can sing pretty much anything and make it her own.
Her eclectic song choices showcased all dimensions of her immensely versatile voice. Her strong, controlled belt and enormous vocal range made Jule Styne’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade” (from Funny Girl) soar to new heights, yet she also proved she can scat with the best of them with Maltby and Shire’s “Starting Here, Starting Now.” From the gorgeous and tender standard songs like “Lazy Afternoon” to uptempo and slightly bitter ones like “Down with Love,” she enviously combined technically precise vocals with powerful emotions. Many of these songs have been covered by contemporary Broadway divas from Sutton Foster and Emily Skinner to Stephanie J. Block in recent cabarets, concerts, and recordings, but Ms. Hampton Callaway’s renditions had so many personal touches that she set herself apart from all those others.
However, three songs stood out for me and made this concert one that should not be missed.
This musical theatre geek was grinning with glee when she combined Jule Styne’s “People” (from Funny Girl) – one of the songs that Ann attested made her fall in love with Barbra’s talent – with Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” (from Company). Certainly, both are familiar fare but the clever mashup revealed not only Ann’s penchant for delivering great character-based songs written for the stage, but her ability to deeply connect with songs about relationships and connections among humanity more generally. The vocal crescendo at the end of “Being Alive” was also particularly lovely.
The second highlight was a song that Ms. Hampton Callaway wrote herself. While at a certain level the lyrics to “At the Same Time” could probably come off as a tad bit schmaltzy if sung by a less-accomplished ‘pageant-style’ performer, her deep and sincere connection to the message (which is essentially a call for peace) left an indelible impression on me. The simple melody of this song is quite beautiful no matter how you look at it.
Ms. Hampton Callaway remarked that one thing she admires in Barbra is her ‘chutzpah’ (nerve) from a young age in calling the shots in her career and going for everything that she wanted. If one of the last songs in her show is any indication, Ann also has ‘chutzpah’ in spades. When her microphone stopped working at the beginning of “A Piece of Sky,” (from Yentl) she merely shrugged it off and said she would do it ‘naked’ (or unplugged). Did it, she did – and marvelously at that.
The heartfelt take on this emotional song most certainly reached the back of the venue and allowed everyone to fully appreciate her vocals in their most pure form. A lesser performer would have nervously waited for a techie to assist or, if she did try to take it on unplugged without preparing to do so, would have showed some fear. There was none of that from Ms. Hampton Callaway. At all. Young aspiring performers that live and die by the microphone, take note.
This was a one-night-only concert on June 8, 2013. For a list of upcoming shows at Bethesda Blues and Jazz visit the venue’s website. A listing of upcoming Ann Hampton Callaway concerts, including one at the Kennedy Center on February 14, 2014 with the National Symphony Orchestra, can be found on her website.