Streisand would be proud: Ann Hampton Callaway and The Boston Pops soar at the Mahaffey

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Posted by  on Thu, Mar 7, 2013 at 2:08 PM

Heading into “The Streisand Songbook” last night at the Mahaffey with the Boston Pops and Ann Hampton Callaway, I was admittedly more excited about the singer than the orchestra. I’m a longtime fan of Callaway, and had enjoyed talking with her in a phone interview before the show. So when I looked at the playbill and saw that she wouldn’t be coming on till after intermission, I was a little dismayed.

Shouldn’t have been. Turns out hearing a full-on orchestra dig into Broadway overtures and, gasp, Marvin Hamlisch, was a hell of a lot of fun — and an experience you don’t get when you see a show on Broadway or at the Straz, where the orchestra is often out of sight in the pit, not front and center in all its glory. Suave young Pops conductor Keith Lockhart led the white dinner-jacketed ensemble with grace and even a bit of nimble soft-shoe, leading his musicians through the urban bedlam of a Bernstein suite fromWonderful Town and West Side Story; the sly lilt of Jule Styne’s overture to Gypsy; and the irresistible hooks in Hamlisch’s Chorus Line overture, including the unmistakable opening piano chords of “One.”

The ostensible connecting thread between these selections was that they all bore some connection to Streisand. That thread got stretched pretty thin at times: the theme fromIce Castles? Turns out that’s another one by Hamlisch, a great pal of Streisand’s. AndHello, Dolly? OK, right — as Lockhart reminded us, Streisand played Dolly in the flop film version of the Jerry Herman musical. The orchestra’s rendition of the all-too-familiar song was my least favorite number in the program — you need a Carol Channing or a Louis Armstrong as the astringent to Herman’s sugary melodics, and the Pops version bore dangerously close to elevator music.

At first, I worried that Ann Hampton Callaway, armored in a Kate Smith-y blue gown and Michelle Obama bangs, was going to do her segment in full emcee mode; the intro was a little too rah-rah, kind of like a PBS pledge break (“if you love Streisand as we do …”). But once she settled in, all doubts faded.

She’d told me during our interview that one of the lessons she’d learned from working with Streisand (Callaway has composed songs for her and helped write patter for one of her rare live concerts) is how to be a “singing actress.” Her rendition of “The Way We Were” was an excellent example. Far from being an imitation of Streisand, her version was thoughtful, almost meditative. In the lyric “Memories can be beautiful, and yet …” she lingers on the “and yet” — suggesting more vividly than the song usually does that the pleasures of nostalgia can only take you so far.

Callaway’s astonishing range — from dark caramel tones to crystalline high notes — was in full force in numbers like “At the Same Time,” a passionate plea for empathy that she wrote with Streisand in mind (and 10 years to the day she wrote it, she told the audience, Streisand did indeed record it). “When I stand up there and get ready to deliver these lyrics that I wrote,” she told me during our interview, “I feel like l’m listening to the universe.” That might sound a bit lofty, but in performance that’s exactly the feeling she conveyed — as if she were trying to embrace us all.

Streisand’s Oscar-winning “Evergreen” got a surprisingly swingin’ re-arrangement. Another smart choice: following the ethereal “On a Clear Day” with “Happy Days Are Here Again,” two divergent takes on the prospect of clear skies ahead. But it was another pairing that was the emotional high point of the evening: “People,” the song Streisand first made famous in Funny Girl, followed by “Being Alive” from Sondheim’s Company.

Calloway had told me an interesting anecdote: Streisand was at first uncomfortable with the lyric “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” She told composer Jule Styne that she thought people who don’t need people are the luckiest people. But Callaway thinks that Streisand’s feelings have evolved since then, as have her own.

“I have tried to be as open and loving as I can, but certain parts of me unknowingly have been closed.” So “People,” for her is about “the moment of self-revelation when you realize what’s missing in your life — when you’re ready to ask for things that are maybe messy and you’re ready to embrace it all, the gorgeous and the ugly. It takes a tremendous amount of courage for any human to do that.” Paired with Sondheim’s wrenching plea for human connection, the medley is “a little two-act play about people becoming alive.”

Sound like a lot for a couple of pop songs to contain? Well, I would wager that everyone in the audience was right there with her for every moment of that little two-act play, a reimagining of two very well-known songs that shed new light on both.

“‘People’ — it is her song, period. No one has come close,” she told me. “I wasn’t about to try to do something better. I wanted to do something true.”

That she did.