What better way to celebrate Women’s History Month than with two of the greatest female singer/songwriters of our time? For three evenings this week, 54 Below is presenting the NYC premiere of Amanda McBroom & Ann Hampton Callaway: Divalicious, which debuted in Barrington, MA in 2016, and has since played clubs in London and around the country, shining a spotlight on the stirring voices and personal stories of these top-notch cabaret artists, a selection of standards from the Great American Songbook, and their own original compositions, which Callaway jokingly referred to as “AnnAmandards.” It got the concert off to a fun start and they kept it going for a full 90 minutes, to the delight of the packed house (which included Ann’s equally “divalicious” sister Liz Callaway).
Masterfully accompanied by music director Michele Brourman on piano and Rett Henn on bass, the close friends and collaborators, in sparkling sequined jackets, opened with an upbeat harmonious duet on “The Glory of Love” (with music and lyrics by Billy Hill, and first recorded by Benny Goodman in 1936) that set the tone for the show and its themed focus on romance and longing, warmth, affection, and appreciation. It also featured Callaway’s signature skillful scatting, with which she punctuated her vocals throughout the set, including her solo on “All the Things You Are” (music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein III), laughingly inviting “Everybody!” to join in. She later accompanied herself on piano for “Improv,” again soliciting the audience to participate by calling out things they celebrate – noting that women should be celebrated every day, not just in March – then amazing the crowd with her joyful impromptu rhymes and rhythms created from the spontaneous suggestions.
Three more vocal solos by Callaway featured emotive renditions of “I’ve Dreamed of You” – a romantic ballad she co-wrote (and rewrote) with Rolph Lovland for Barbra Streisand, who recorded it in 1999, following her 1998 marriage to James Brolin – which, in her introduction to the song, Callaway dedicated to her own wife and also did a hilarious spot-on impression of Streisand’s speaking voice and heavy New York accent; “Finding Beauty,” a jazz number and title track of her forthcoming album with McBroom, with music and lyrics by Callaway that explore the effects and feelings of love; and the Peggy Lee blues classic “Black Coffee” (music by Sonny Burke and lyrics by Paul Francis Webster), published in 1948, and recorded by Lee in 1953, as the titular song on her first LP. Callaway’s own unique and resonant version of “Black Coffee” is one of fourteen tracks on her latest CD, Fever: A Peggy Lee Celebration, released on Palmetto Records on February 10, and the subject of her previous series of tribute concerts at 54 Below.
McBroom likewise commanded the stage with her profound and humorous featured solos on a selection of five songs, four of which she wrote and co-wrote. In “Old Love,” with music and lyrics by Brourman and McBroom, she sang the affecting true story of a first love not forgotten over thirty years. That was followed by the co-creators’ funny and flirtatious “Eggs,” with witty wordplays on a variety of breakfast foods to be enjoyed in bed on the morning after, and the poignant “Wheels,” for which McBroom wrote the music and lyrics, inspired by the obituary photos of actress Mary MacLaren, a star of silent and sound films in the era of Clara Bow, with the message that, despite what happens in life, “you gotta keep rollin’ on.”
She later returned to the spotlight for the NYC debut of “Information Please” (music and lyrics by Callaway and McBroom), a poignant reminiscence about the days of “phones that didn’t walk” and operator assistance, which left few dry eyes in the house. And her blockbuster performance of “Carousel,” from the 1968 hit musical Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (music and lyrics by Brel and Eric Blau), brought down the house, with her slow build to a frenetic crescendo enhanced by flashing colored lights and prefaced by her observation that, for anyone who thinks the song is past its prime, it’s still apropos in light of the current situation in our country and the world.
Brourman was also given her moment to shine with “You’re Only Old Once” (co-written with McBroom), an amusing paean to aging that “a six-year-old couldn’t possibly understand,” accompanying herself on piano to a ragtime rhythm. And she joined Callaway and McBroom on a buoyant medley of popular songs with optimistic lyrics by Dorothy Fields (“Sunny Side of the Street,” “Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love”), paying homage to a trailblazing woman who wrote more than 400 songs for Broadway musicals and Hollywood movies, and collaborated with some of the most influential figures in musical theater. By way of introduction, McBroom shared a personal story of the kindness and generosity Fields showed her.
Rounding out the set list were stellar duets by Callaway and McBroom on their down-tempo love song, and their first single together, “Almost,” and “Love and Let Love” (music and lyrics by Brourman and Callaway), with Callaway on lead vocal and McBroom providing the harmony. They closed the show with an exquisite heartfelt rendition of “The Rose” (music and lyrics by McBroom), which became a number one international hit with Bette Midler’s 1979 version of the song for her Oscar-nominated film of the same name. There couldn’t have been a more perfect way to end this phenomenal concert.
If you can’t make it in person to 54 Below, the performance will also be livestreamed in real time on March 4, so you can enjoy this fabulous show and celebrate these extraordinarily talented women at home.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.
Amanda McBroom & Ann Hampton Callaway: Divalicious plays through Saturday, March 4, 2023, at 7 pm (doors open at 5:30), at 54 Below, 54 West 54th Street, cellar, NYC. For tickets (priced at $60-135, plus fees), call (646) 476-3551, or go online. Masks are not required. For tickets to the livestream on March 4 (priced at $25, plus fees), click here.