Ann Hampton Callaway Presents the
Streisand Songbook at 54 Below

by Rob Lester

Ann Hampton CallawayThere's more than one way to revisit the past. On the same day the record company that Barbra Streisand has been with for half a century decided to belatedly release Release Me, long held-back gems from studio sessions—on vinyl—Ann Hampton Callaway released her own inner Streisand at her New York City opening. Taking on the legend's songbook, Ann has her own landmark bookmark in it, having been a contributor on a couple of occasions, which helps uniquely anchor the show. Not that she needs that to succeed in what might be a daunting or daring or disastrous task for lesser singers—in brilliantly clear and strong voice, with prodigious skill to navigate the musical waters, her abilities and confidence assure us she is up to the task of both honoring and adding to the impact of the originals.

Welcoming the jam-packed audience last night at the classy 54 Below, starting with "Starting Here, Starting Now" (Maltby & Shire) as Streisand had done in a fundraiser in another presidential year forty years ago, she added a couple lines of her own, rhyming the numeral in this nightclub's name with the icon we all we all "love and adore." But this smart, tight night deftly directed by Dan Foster (who happens to be the husband of her sister, Liz Callaway), we'd soon see, was to be no re-creation of arrangements and phrasing and attitude. There was more jazz, a touch of scat-singing, and thoroughly involved work with arrangements often co-credited to the multi-talented Callaway.

With the second and third numbers, she brought us back to Barbra's earliest appearances when, not quite out of her teens, the fledgling Brooklynite took on her earliest repertoire. Samples were "A Sleepin' Bee" from the score of House of Flowers, which won Barbra her first talent contest—the prize being her first singing job. And she sang it in a very early TV appearance and it's on her first solo album. But rather than the pleading and wide-eyed faith and awe that colored a young person's telling of the sign that a non-stinging bee in one's hand meant that your love is true, there was a sense of reveling in being so assured. Smiling, a light swing feel was added by Ann's vocal and the breezier tempo set by the excellent trio (Ted Rosenthal on piano, Martin Wind on bass, and Tim Horner on drums). Stinging and startling was "Cry Me a River," an explosive catharsis of bitterness in the Streisand version gained more a sense of ruminating regret and a sadder-but-wiser lamenting, without abandoning the palpable pain.

The landmark Funny Girl, naturally, had to be addressed She opted for a rather traditional kind of pulsating tirade for "Don't Rain on My Parade" ("Who knew show tunes could be a kind of self-help?") and an uber-sincere "People." The latter was at first stripped to a no-frills essence, begun with the most minimalistic piano accompaniment until, with brushes, the rhythm on drums tiptoed in, joined subtly by soft bass. Then, in an unexpected combination, the ode to the "people who need people" segued into the plea for "somebody, need too much" (Company's "Being Alive") with—for a while—another musical surprise—a Latin feel—before ending powerfully with "People." This segment got one of the biggest hands in a night of many instances of sustained, appreciative applause.

Frequently sounding like an unabashed but not drooling or fawning card-carrying member of the Barbra Streisand Fan Club, Ann sang her praises as well as her material. "She was not just a sound," she remarked, recalling what she admired and learned from her dynamic, dramatic early work: "She was someone who understood entering a song and inhabiting it as if it's happening in that very moment." She remembers buying those early albums with her allowance.

Dropping out of college (she calls it her "drive-by education"), Annie was the name of her working wedding band the year the musical Annie came out (like Streisand, some things are built to last and keep returning), and the big wedding party request was the then-current film song hit about lasting love, "Evergreen" (co-written by Paul Williams and Streisand from her version of A Star Is Born). So, we got that, again with more of an easy/light swing of serene contentment rather than rhapsodizing. And, speaking of weddings, the singer-songwriter told the story of how Barbra (who'd admired and recorded Ann's "At the Same Time" ten years to the day it had been written in a fifth-floor Greenwich Village walk-up—also included and quite moving) asked Ann to supply a lyric which ended up being the Streisand/Brolin wedding song supplied just in the nick of time. And when Ann took to the piano and played and sang this romantic piece, "I've Dreamed of You," it became all the more powerful when she shared that, "after all these years," she'd finally found someone, too.

"Ann Hampton Callaway presents The Streisand Songbook" through September 29 at 54 Below, 254 West 54 Street. See and for more info.