To open its 2008 Extended Season on Saturday, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center evidently needed a diva, and it got one.
Ann Hampton Callaway said from the cozy Spa Little Theatre stage that a diva is someone capable of “singing, entertaining and wearing sequins.” The latter was evident as soon as she swept onstage to join her jazz trio, and she mixed up the other two with a diva’s dash and ditziness through 90 minutes of larger than life star time.
She confidently swung “The Glory of Love” to start, then assured “The Best is Yet To Come,” enlisting the near-capacity audience in finger snapping, applauding their obedience, then leaving all assistance behind by building it from quiet coziness to muscular belting.
In cabaret style she cited her upbringing in the “von Trapp family of Chicago” to explain how she got this way before paying tribute to Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn with impressively exaggerated caricatures of “God Bless the Child,” more fragile-voiced then Billie ever sang it, and “Misty” with soaring swoops and dips. She stayed in vaudeville mode with “Too White to Sing the Blues,” sing-imitating a muted trumpet and then a tenor sax in the song’s most startling solos, then dove into an over-the-top coda.
Thereafter she alternated simply heavenly singing with inspired silliness. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” soared as high as anyone has ever swung it, then “Mr. Paganini” channeled Ella Fitzgerald’s joyous playfulness with a strutting skat interlude that beautifully set up the Chick Corea/Al Jarreau romp “Spain” that followed. She turned serious again with Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” then a knockout “blues for rich people,” as she stated in her intro to “Just One of Those Things,” in a breezy, muscular swing.
Then came the show’s musical/emotional peak, one that few other divas could match. Claiming that as a writer she aspires to obscurity but sometimes fails, she strategically dropped Barbra Streisand’s name (Babs sang it at her own wedding) and dove into “I’ve Dreamed Of You” before the irony and name-dropping could fade. This was just plain stunning, written with great depth of feeling and sung with heart and simplicity.
She got jokey again with mock-classical quotes in “Start All Over Again,” then exploded “Blue Moon” from a quietly but emphatically swung blues into clenched-fist belting.
Callaway clearly commands an astounding instrument, but her respect for those who inspired her and her exuberant sense of fun infuses that instrument with a rare artistry.
Improvising her encore, she asked the audience for words to build a love song to Saratoga Springs. Some heartfelt couplets resulted, but she also aptly rhymed “Eliot Spitzer” with “bad behavior” and advised him to sample Stewart’s ice cream, again proving herself a diva with a fabulous funny bone as well as a fantastic voice. Later, she led a singalong in her own autograph line.
The Extended Season continues with Colombian jazz harpist Edmar Castaneda on Thursday and singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega on Friday.
Reach Michael Hochanadel at firstname.lastname@example.org.