Liz Callaway & Jason Graae: Happily Ever Laughter

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Liz Callaway & Jason Graae

Happily Ever Laughter

54 Below, NYC, July 6, 2024

Reviewed by Alix Cohen

Liz Callaway & Jason Graae
Photo: Maryann Lopinto

Liz Callaway and Jason Graae met at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and bonded during 1980’s Equity Library Theater production of Godspell. They were one another’s dates at pivotal events and sang at each other’s weddings. It showed; familiarity and appreciation overrode ersatz derogatory quips.

Booked (elsewhere) to perform An Evening with Liz Callaway and Jason Graae, they were startled to find their show’s title arbitrarily changed to Backstage Buddies, which was used as the basis for a clever mash-up for their opening number. These veterans shared mutual esteem as well as the terrific Alex Rybeck as music director/pianist.

The word “backstage” was inserted into lyrics of songs like a hiccough: “Nights are long since you went away/I think about you all through the day/My backstage buddy…” (from “My Buddy”; Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn); “ Life is slow but it seems exciting/’Cause my backstage buddy’s there” (from “In Buddy’s Eyes”; Stephen Sondheim.) They turned lemons into lemonade; clever.

Reference to “sitting in bars and talking” back then introduced “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (Burt Bacharach/Hal David)—a sketchy connection. Their performance was matey and unvarnished. Callaway’s lyric line “to remind you” curved above like a rainbow.

“Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” (Richard Rodgers/ Lorenz Hart) did not make sequential sense either, but again, the performance was engaging. Graae’ s oboe solo, which began with comic wrong notes peppered with a few distressed facial expressions, in fact, was well played. “Follow THAT!” he declared as he left the stage.

“West End Avenue” (Stephen Schwartz) was tied in with Callaway’s having performed the song in her first cabaret act and Graae’s literally having lived on that street at the time. Lyric-wise, it was a smart choice. Callaway’s voice soared, but never overwhelmed or diminished the story telling. As in playing cards, she knew “when to hold ’em, and when to fold ’em.”

Next came a duet of “What Could Be Better” from Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire’s Baby (Callaway appeared in the original production as the young, pregnant Lizzie) and “Crazy ’Bout Ya Baby” (Pat Barrett/Rudi Maugeri) featuring Rybeck on vocal from Forever Plaid in which Graae had played Sparky in the original quartet. The latter was a highlight and emerged with the bonhomie of back-porch harmony, nifty hand gestures, and the microphone stands tipped in unison.

John Bucchino’s “It Feels Like Home,” the song Callaway sang for Graae and his husband at their wedding, floated in on delicate, earnest timbre. “Yes, we have come from a long way,” she sang as her eyes momentarily closed. It was just lovely. Graae prefaced two ballads with feelings for “Glen Fretwell at Glen Fretwell Landscape Design.” (He even gave us a phone number.) “What More Can I Say?” (William Finn) and “Married” (John Bucchino) had gravitas and grace. Callaway gazed at her friend with palpable affection.

Callaway’s sympathetic story about finally being cast as an animated Disney character in Anastasia was followed by her glorious renditions of two songs from the move that should perhaps be laid to rest for awhile. Graae’s anecdotes about his work as the voice of the Lucky Charms (cereal) leprechaun (also time to retire) was followed by an angry-when-fired, “How Lucky Can You Get” (John Kander/Fred Ebb) during which he mangled a box of the cereal and declared, “But I’m not bitter.” She was the actress, and he was the clown.

“It Takes Two” and “Old Friends” (Stephen Sondheim) were genial and apt; warm and plainspoken. We didn’t need the overused “Anything You Can Do” (Irving Berlin). “Nice” (Stephen Flaherty/Lynn Ahrens) is rarely performed, and it fit like a puzzle piece: “You were impossible, unbearable/My nerves were almost unrepairable/But now that it’s through, it was nice” had just the right mix of regard and wit.

“The next seven songs we’d like to do…” heralded the show’s encore, “You’ll Never Get Away from Me” (Jule Styne/Sondheim). It was performed with some mugging but mostly with love. The show was a wellspring of talent wrapped in genuine shared friendship.

Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts, including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of cabaret, she’s also a theater aficionado, a voting member of Drama Desk, The Drama League and of The NY Press Club in addition to MAC. Currently, Alix writes for Cabaret Scenes, Theater Pizzazz and Woman Around Town. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine and Times Square Chronicles. Alix is the recipient of six New York Press Club Awards.

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