Not to slight her marvelous recordings, but you haven't really heard Liz Callaway sing until you've seen her. In number after mesmerizing number during the first of her current two-night stand for Austin Cabaret Theatre, this Tony nominee would transform herself as she dove into the heart of the song.
Callaway would introduce a song as herself, radiating all the sunny Midwestern charm of Nellie Forbush, but then as her musical director Alex Rybeck played the opening measures, something would change in her – not her stance or the expression on her face, but something internal, something connected to identity, so that when she opened her mouth, another person was singing. You could look in her eyes – and I did many times in the course of her hour and a half set – and see that she'd made that mysterious, ineffable shift that actors make when they slip inside a character's skin. She'd become the character in the song's story, with a fully developed backstory and setting and conflict that was apparent and that took the song from being a heightened expression of emotion to a catchy melody to a drama in miniature.
That's not a quality I remember from Callaway's previous visit to Austin six years ago. Of course, then she was appearing with her sister, ACT favorite Ann Hampton Callaway, and much of the act was built on their interaction. That show was delightful in revealing the respective talents of the siblings and their differing temperaments in relation to each other (Ann jazzy, smoky, and sultry; Liz poppy, bright, and winning). In the spotlight alone, though, Liz seems to brought more of her own personality and approach to performance, and it's rich with the kind of acting one more typically associate with the classical stage than cabaret.
She could take a number like "Leavin' on a Jet Plane," the complex feelings of which we may have been numbed to by repetition, and make our ears tingle to it. Playing across her features were flashes of anxiety and longing and affection, and she invested the lyrics with such specificity that when she achingly sang the line, "I hate to go," you could see the person to whom she was singing. And "Memory" – a song that Callaway no doubt feels an obligation to sing since she logged five years as Grizzabella in Cats on Broadway – was made fresh not just by Callaway's straightforwardly impassioned delivery, but by the spark of regret and wistfulness in her eyes that flared into defiance as she sang on. And when she lit into "Something Wonderful" from The King and I, which she dedicated to her husband, that boundless affection in her eyes sparkled as brightly as the gem on her wedding ring.
Every note was pristine, every pitch precise, every emotion spot-on, but when you watched Callaway immerse herself in these songs through their characters, the richness of them was multiplied fivefold. Liz Callaway delivers sublime cabaret, and seeing is believing.
Liz Callaway performs Friday, Sep. 6, 8:30pm, at Shoal Crossing, 8611 N. MoPac. For more information, visit www.austincabaret.org.
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