It’s slightly funny that Ann Hampton Callaway used the Yiddish word “chutzpah” midway through her performance of The Streisand Songbook at 54 Below – and not just because she isn’t Jewish. Because, let’s face it, it truly takes chutzpah (aka nerve) to do not just a lilting, vaguely swinging take on the Oscar-winning song “Evergreen,” (written by Streisand and Paul Williams), but an entire act of songs associated with the woman many people consider the world’s greatest singer.
But nisht gedeiget (don’t worry, as we say in Yiddish), Callaway has everything in her arsenal to pull off this seemingly impossible feat: a rich voice with extraordinary range, a superb sense of musicianship, and a love and knowledge of Streisand’s oeuvre, all of which adds up to a don’t-miss show that will tour the country over the coming months.
Equally important, Callaway has the smarts to make the proper selections from Streisand’s vast repertoire, largely selecting songs that, while known for their recordings by Streisand, can still be made the singer’s own. She starts off with a dynamic version of Richard Maltby and David Shire’s “Starting Here, Starting Now” (complete with some terrific jazz scatting), and continues through the first half of her set with winner after winner, including a properly dramatic take on Arthur Hamilton’s torchy “Cry Me a River,” a sassy version of the Harold Arden-Yip Harburg standard “Down With Love,” and a breathtakingly gorgeous rendition of “Lazy Afternoon.”
When she finally tackles a truly iconic Streisand song (other than “Evergreen”), it’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade” (from Broadway’s Funny Girl) and her version is so straightforward, yet so sublime, you half expect that damned tugboat to come into the club. She follows it with Streisand’s signature hit, “People,” which is not just faithfully rendered, but beautifully combined with Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” (which Streisand recorded for The Broadway Album). And late in the show, Callaway shows similar skill in tackling the moving “A Piece of Sky” (from the film Yentl), which manages to soar beyond its source material.
It will come as no surprise to Callaway’s fans that the show includes “At the Same Time,” a lovely ballad that Callaway penned which was recorded by Streisand in 1997, and the extraordinarily beautiful love song, “I’ve Dreamed of You,” which Callaway wrote the lyrics for – and which Streisand sang to her husband James Brolin at their wedding, a mere three hours after learning it. Not surprisingly, either, both tunes received two of the night’s strongest, most-deserved ovations.
Yes, it’s true that, when the show ends, some fans may be disappointed that they haven’t heard their favorite Streisand song. But no one can argue with the joyousness of Callaway’s encore: a sublime medley of “On a Clear Day” and “Happy Days Are Here Again” that is guaranteed to cause you to leave 54 Below walking on air.