No one who follows Ann Hampton Callaway's career would dispute her musical gifts. The only serious criticism we have leveled at her in the past concerned a lack of emotional connection to her material: At one time, she tended to surf on her skills and rarely explored the depths of passion. However, in her new show at Feinstein's at the Regency (through November 3), she jumps off the surfboard and dives deep inside herself. You should jump in with her, because now she's diving for pearls. In fact, she comes up with a whole string of them in the form of signature songs of the 20th century's greatest jazz singers.
Callaway's show is titled Signature. In it, she leaves the safe harbor of her piano bench to perform her entire act standing up in front of a four-piece jazz band. Her patter is smart, carefully and economically written, and tossed off in an entirely natural manner. It's only marred by her constant references to herself as a diva. Otherwise, she talks briefly but entertainingly about some of the artists whose signature songs she sings. She also includes a lovely story about Ervin Drake, one of the composers of "Good Morning Heartache," the Billie Holliday hit. It seems that, as a very young man, Drake wrote the lyric after his romance with a beautiful showgirl ended. Callaway went on to report that Drake married another woman. Many years later, after his wife had died, he became reacquainted with the showgirl, whose own husband had also recently died. The couple, married 25 years, was at Callaway's opening night performance!
We should add that Callaway interprets the lyric of "Good Morning Heartache" with a newfound empathy; you can see the pain in her eyes and feel the hurt in her heart. She finds new depth in such songs as "In the Wee Small Hours," "Tenderly," and "For All We Know." This woman could always sing the hell out of anything, but now she's making you feel as well as hear.
Of course, you might quibble with her definition of a signature song, as we do. To our minds, Tony Bennett's signature song is "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," not "The Best is Yet to Come." When you hear "Pick Yourself Up," don't you think of Fred Astaire rather than Mel Torme? And "Route 66" makes us think of Nelson Riddle and his orchestra, not Nat King Cole. But, again, these are quibbles. And there's no quibbling about what Callaway calls her own signature song, "Blues in the Night." She sang it eight times a week in her Broadway starring role in Swing! This Arlen/Mercer standard used to belong to, among others, Margaret Whiting and Lena Horne, but Callaway makes a great claim to it with her own impassioned rendition. It's a stunner.
Callaway continues her traditional, highly impressive gimmick of creating a song out of thin air at the end of her show. She asks the audience to give her about half-a-dozen words or phrases which she then, on the spot, weaves into a freshly minted musical extravaganza. On the night we were at her show the following words were called out: "Adirondack Mountains," "insane," "alligator," "peas," "sex," and "small, brown gerbil." Off the cuff, she commented on her audience: "A downtown attitude in an uptown boite." The first part of her spontaneous number was actually quite touching, the second half was so cleverly constructed that she actually managed to avoid the linking of "sex" and "small brown gerbil."
Callaway closes the show with her very recently composed patriotic number called "I Believe in America." The song has a stirring, catchy melody, but the lyric is repetitive and unworthy of her talent. Of course, today we are all hungry for a modern equivalent of "God Bless America" and Ann Hampton Callaway might yet write that tune, but this is not it. Still, this is a breakthrough show that should be seen.