An Evening with Liz Callaway at the Crazy Coqs, London, continues until 1 February.
Just when everybody thought the evening was going like clockwork, Broadway star Liz Callaway ‘forgot’ her lines in the ridiculously fast ‘Another 100 People’ and had the first night Crazy Coqs audience gasping in surprise and sympathy as the Sondheim classic seemed to be getting the better of her.
They needn’t have worried: it was all a plot as it segued into a wicked parody, written by serial Sondheim spoofer Lauren Mayer, which changed the opening line to ‘Another 100 Lyrics Just Flew Out of My Brain’ and went from there, making fun of the notoriously difficult time performers have tackling his material with their tempo and key changes, tongue twisters and sheer volume of words.
As this was Callaway’s London debut as a solo artist – and her first appearance here since her Sibling Revelry double act with singer-songwriter sister Ann Hampton Callaway at the Donmar in 1998 – it took a minute to realise this was the star turn of a very assured cabaret act.
Callaway and Sondheim go back a long way, as she made her Broadway bow as a waitress (and understudy to leading lady Ann Morrison) in that notorious flop Merrily We Roll Along which ran for just 16 performances in 1981.
In fact, Callaway’s Broadway baptism was far from auspicious as she followed that two-week run in Merrily with a show that bombed even sooner. But it all came up roses in the fullness of time with the lead in Baby, never seen over here, but dear to the Callaway heart as she was Tony-nominated for it in 1984.
Other successes inevitably followed for this blonde belter, including Miss Saigon and Evita, but Callaway is best known in New York for her long run as Grizabella in Cats and she couldn’t go away without giving us – “without the whiskers!” – the show’s hit song ‘Memory’, calling it “the most beautiful theatre song of the past three decades”. Watching her perform it on opening night was her British equivalent Elaine Paige, so no pressure, then…
Naturally enough, ‘Meadowlark’, the first song I ever heard her sing and the Stephen Schwartz classic from The Baker’s Wife, with which she has always been associated, was on the agenda. But it was the lesser-known ‘Since You Stayed Here’, the one song which has endured from a 1986 Off-Broadway show called Brownstone, which never made it into the big time, that tugged the heartstrings most.
There was the perfect mix of standards, less familiar material and anecdote with her tale of being Barbra Streisand’s stand-in for a concert tour in which she had to learn 40 of her songs, just to sing them with a 60-piece orchestra at rehearsal, while Streisand swanned around working out the angles for her performance and how she wanted to be lit. “Just breathing the same air as Streisand was an out-of-body experience,” she cooed as she gave us her own, classy version of ‘People’.
Along with plenty of her beloved Sondheim – she played Young Sally in the legendary Follies concert of 1985, so the brilliantly painful ‘Losing My Mind’ was a must – there was wonderful variety with John Denver’s ‘Leaving On a Jet Plane’ rubbing shoulders with Jimmy Webb’s ‘MacArthur Park’, Frank Loesser’s ‘My Heart is So Full of You’ and ‘Something Wonderful’ from The King And I. Accompanying Callaway on all these songs and more was her long-time collaborator Alex Rybeck who was his usual superb self on piano.
Once again the Crazy Coqs is spoiling us with Broadway’s creme de la creme and Callaway has already fallen so in love with the warm and cosy Piccadilly room that she tells me she’ll try to persuade big sis to come back with her next time. What a treat that would be but, meanwhile, one Callaway is more than splendid.
Readers may also be interested in:
Brent Barrett – Crazy Coqs – Review
Carole J Bufford – Crazy Coqs – Review
Elaine Paige is profiled in Issue 5 of Musical Theatre Review, out on 31 January.