Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Mostly Good Review

Glitzy and glamorous, the Heartland Men's Chorus opens their 25th season with vocalist Ann Hampton Callaway. "The Nanny" crooner brings wit and pizazz to the Folly

The Heartland Men’s Chorus pulled out all the stops for their 25th-anniversary season opening concert with guest vocalist Ann Hampton Callaway last Saturday evening at the Folly Theater. The festive spirit was palpable as concertgoers packed liked sardines into the lobby, dressed to the nines in tuxedos and evening gowns, eagerly anticipating the show and the following glitzy “Dinner of Note.”

Backed by a trio of piano, bass, and drums, Ann Hampton Callaway opened her set with the up-tempo, energetic “The Glory of Love,” immediately displaying her rich alto range and depth of tone. Comfortable and quick-witted onstage, she had an easy rapport with the audience, telling jokes and dropping one-liners without missing a beat (“I woke up at 4 a.m.—8 hours before diva o’clock,” “My father always told me to keep my gin up”). While not always perfectly in tune and a little breathy at times in her high register, Callaway’s brazen sense of humor and fun made such imperfections forgivable.

Callaway continued with uncanny impressions of some of her inspirations, jazz legends Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan (her extreme interval leap during her Vaughan impression was particularly notable). Her short biographical anecdote introduced the first original tune, “I’m Too White to Sing the Blues Blues.” The lyrics were humorous, however Callaway’s imitation of a trumpet and saxophone were not. While she did vocally reproduce the timbre of the instruments, her physical miming was a bit awkward. I would rather have heard her scat a chorus.

Her “finest work to date” (according to her accountant) is the theme song for the television show The Nanny, one of many songs she has written and performed for TV. The audience was excited to hear this tune, singing along, which prompted another uncanny impression of actor Fran Drescher. The most interesting story of the night accompanied “Come Rain or Come Shine”—Callaway’s experience recording the song for Robert DeNiro’s film The Good Shepherd.
“Old Friend” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” were the slow tearjerkers of the set. A definite highlight, Callaway sang the original, complete introduction to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” a cappella, with great intonation, sensitivity, and emotion, drawing cheers from the audience at its conclusion.

Next, Callaway involved the audience in a sort of improvisatory “mad libs” song, asking them to shout out words about Kansas City, which she then included in an on-the-spot “Kansas City Love Song.” Barbeque, Oklahoma Joe’s, the Royals, fountains, jazz, and even Two Rivers and David Cook made it into the lyrics. The final product was silly and clever, if a bit meandering. Still, it was a nice personal touch to an already pretty intimate-feeling concert.

Callaway’s final song of her set was the Etta James classic “At Last.” This song is perfectly suited for Callaway’s voice, and she gave it her own sultry, soulful twist, singing with passion and stylistically fitting embellishments. I believe it was the best and strongest piece of the evening.

Themes of dreams, hopes, love, and friendship ran deep throughout the concert. The three songs Callaway performed with the Heartland Men’s Chorus, “Sing Out” and “Wherever You Are” [Editors note: rehearsal footage for this song is on my youtube page here] (Callaway originals) and “Let Me Be the Music” were appropriate expressions of the theme, and although they leaned towards a bit too saccharine-inspirational for my personal taste, the emotional impact was undeniable. The Chorus sang well, with good sustain, diction, and energy (and an occasional shaky pitch and entrance), yet they didn’t have the depth and power I have heard them project in past concerts—the balance was off between the Chorus, the instrumentalists, and Callaway’s microphone levels.

With their upbeat attitude and pure joy for music-making, the Heartland Men’s Chorus always deliver enjoyable shows that leaves the audience entertained and uplifted. Callaway’s presence was a welcome treat—an excellent guest for this elite, yet easy-going event. The Heartland Men’s Chorus should absolutely celebrate and be proud of their 25-year history and I look forward to what they have in store this special season!

Heartland Men’s Chorus
with Ann Hampton Callaway

Saturday, October 2, 2010
Folly Theatre
12th and Central Streets, Downtown, Kansas City, MO