Oh, It's Cabaret, All Right!
Kristin Chenoweth makes the American Songbook her own and Ann Hampton Callaway sends a valentine to Rodgers & Hart.
There were no tables and chairs for the audience at the John Jay College Theater, where Kristin Chenoweth made her Lincoln Center solo singing debut this past weekend. People sat in the usual theater rows with playbills in hand. The show was in two acts, with an intermission in between. Yet it was pure cabaret, judged by the genre's most basic requirement: This was an intimate expression of the star's personality through song and patter. And, judging by her performance here, Chenoweth is the most adorable and talented performer this side of anywhere.
Her show was the kickoff of The American Songbook series at Lincoln Center. Well, sort of at Lincoln Center: Chenoweth (aided by musical director Andrew Lippa, who wrote a piece of special material for her ironically titled "Lincoln Center") had the audience in the palm of her dainty hand as she musically joked about the fact that she was actually performing in the theater at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
It's hard to imagine a show that could be better designed to show off the length, breadth, and width of Chenoweth's talent. Using her opera, Broadway musical comedy, and break-your-heart-ballad voices -- sometimes within the same number! -- she gave a dazzling display of her vocal dexterity. Whether she was singing "Glitter and be Gay" from Leonard Bernstein's Candide, the cute and funny "Taylor" by Goldrich & Heisler, or "Till There Was You" from Meredith Willson's The Music Man coupled with an early version of "My White Knight" from that show, she proved that there are precious few people on any stage who can touch her.
Chenoweth showed her dexterity in other ways, too, dancing with panache and kidding the audience. By way of helping to structure her act, she did a little bit of that old cabaret standby and gave us a touch of her life story. This approach happily led to her performance of "My New Philosophy" (by Lippa) from her Tony-winning stint on Broadway in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Along the way, we also learned of her particular love for the music of Jerome Kern and were treated to a knockout medley of three of his songs: "Bill," "Why Was I Born?" and "Nobody Else But Me" (Kern/Hammerstein). It sure seemed as if nobody else but Chenoweth could put on a show quite like this one.
The difference between cabaret and theater is, to a certain extent, reflected in the difference between the lyrics of Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, II. During this year's 100th birthday celebration of Richard Rodgers, many of the cabaret acts in town have tended to focus more on songs that the great melodist wrote with his earlier partner, Hart, whose lyrics are generally more sophisticated and more emotionally complex than those of Hammerstein.
Ann Hampton Callaway's new show at Feinstein's at the Regency is called Rodgers & Heart. Though most of the songs in the act feature lyrics by Hart, Callaway also offers a few Rodgers & Hammerstein classics. She presents a medley of a dozen songs that includes the words of both lyricists -- a medley that is frustrating for listeners in that it contains no more than little bits of so many great songs. Perhaps out-of-town audiences need to be reminded of how many classics were written by Richard Rodgers, but this can't be said of most folks who patronize New York clubs and especially not this late in Rodgers' centennial year.
When Callaway settles into a ballad, however, she demonstrates more depth of feeling than we have heard from her before. "It Never Entered My Mind" coupled with "Little Girl Blue" is a revelation. And "My Funny Valentine" is heartbreaking as Callaway stresses the word that sits at the dramatic crossroads of the song: "stay."
There are few cabaret singers as vocally gifted as Callaway, and those gifts are especially apparent in her rousing rendition of "Blue Moon." Like her much admired version of "Blues in the Night," it's a barn-burner of an arrangement -- plus she gives us the fascinating history of the song before making it her own. Ann Hampton Callaway has never been better. She continues at Feinstein's through October 19.