And if Callaway's nigh-perfect renditions of some of the era's greatest hits -- beautifully arranged and played by her musical director, Alex Rybeck -- have already reverberated in my brain, it's because this show is based on her long-released CD of the same name. But in person, Callaway's singular warmth and vocal skill bring this material to an even higher level.
Blessed with a remarkably pure instrument -- complete with an impressive if not overpowering belt -- Callaway also maintains a girlishness that allows her to mine the innocence of songs like "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" "Moon River," "Feelin' Groovy," and "Frank Mills." The latter number, from Hair, is only one of two theater-related selections in the show, with the other being a strongly performed medley of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Knowing When to Leave" and "Promises, Promises."
Even better, her instincts as an actress -- after all, she earned a Tony Award nomination for Baby and was a memorable Grizabella in Cats -- come to the fore when she sets her sights on the period's more dramatic songs. In her hands, "You Don't Own Me," "Eleanor Rigby," "Leavin' On a Jet Plane," "Monday, Monday," and especially a medley of Jimmy Webb's heartbreaking "Didn't We" and the middle section of "MacArthur Park" practically become one-act plays.
As Callaway remarked on her opening night, 2008 feels like the 1960s in so many ways, lending gravity to the anti-war song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" Moreover, I'd never even focused on the fact that the show's title number, a seemingly silly ditty, contains the line "men keep marching off to war." But by and large, The Beat Goes On is not a political statement. Callaway knows the audience is there to revel in nostalgia of a somewhat simpler time and have fun; she even encourages a singalong on the impossibly catchy "Downtown." So right now, if you want to forget your troubles, head to midtown instead and revel in this glorious evening.