When Ann Hampton Callaway is on the playbill, you know you’re in for a treat. The multi-platinum (and multi-talented) Broadway star earns her keep as a singer-songwriter and pianist, perhaps most famously writing and recording the theme song for The Nanny.
Between songs at Friday night’s “Diva to Diva” performance with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Hampton Callaway shared anecdotes from her illustrious career writing songs for the likes of Carole King and Barbra Streisand. In fact, she dropped so many names she had to bend down to pick a few up in the second act, a self-deprecating gag that fit well with the jaunty tone she’d already set in Act One.
Hampton Callaway’s voice is husky and agile, and one is struck mostly by the apparent ease of her delivery. She has noted previously her distaste for “pyrotechnic” or athletic vocal performance, preferring to focus on the storytelling endemic to lyrics in the proverbial Great American Songbook. Yet her notes and dynamics soar and balloon effortlessly across octaves in a way that sounds athletic but looks inevitable, like nothing less could possibly issue from her lungs. Her charm resides in her restraint, which imbues her vocals with an assurance that the audience is in good hands for the night. And for those with cotton in their ears, Hampton Callaway’s booming Shirley Bassey tribute at the end of the first act seemed to say, “This isn’t as easy as it looks!”
The orchestra, helmed by conductor Andreas Delfs’ energetic baton, flitted from Ella Fitzgerald to Nina Simone to Carole King to Judy Garland, and along the way Hampton Callaway paid tribute to the greats who had inspired her career, honoring them more than impersonating their styles. Her mild self-effacement excused whatever audacity one might imagine it takes to cover “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which she performed with her own signature twist after a panegyrical (but never obsequious) tribute to Garland. “I practice Judy-ism,” she joked at one point, claiming to worship all women named Judy.
Perhaps most impressive was Hampton Callaway’s improvisational skills, on display in a Milwaukee-themed song composed live in collaboration with the audience. Volunteers shouted suggestions, mad libs-style (Laverne! Shirley! A fish fry!) and Hampton Callaway performed a Streisand-worthy narrative ballad about conductor Andreas Delfs’ fictional dalliance with both Laverne and Shirley (Fonzie also made a cameo).
Though the members of the MSO played joyfully, and Delfs conducted with the whimsy of someone who hasn’t wearied from decades at the conductor’s podium, the full orchestra brought a gravitas to the performance that adroitly balanced Hampton Callaway’s natural levity—an extended second-act joke about her ex-husband sitting in the front row (climaxing in a rousing rendition of Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good”), an impression of Audra McDonald doing an impression of Billie Holiday, and an entreaty for the audience to join in on an impossibly random scat interlude, to name a few of her most humorous bits.
The MSO’s “Diva to Diva” program is billed as “a celebration of the songs and songstresses that define the word diva,” and celebration is an apropos designation for what Hampton Callaway and Delfs set out to do. When most people hear “diva” they think primadonna or high maintenance. It’s a double-edged word that suggests at best a musical talent that can surmount bad behavior; at worst it’s a back-handed misogynist compliment. But Hampton Callaway’s interpretation of “diva” is closer to the word’s Latin roots, where it means nothing more and nothing less than goddess.
Go See It: The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s “Diva to Diva” at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts; Saturday, Mar. 2, 8 p.m. and Sunday, Mar. 3, 2:30 p.m.