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Liz Callaway and Jason Graae

Liz Callaway and Jason Graae in Backstage Broadway Buddies

Edison Theatre Ovations! Series

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Audiences in general and local audiences in particular have taken a lot of flack in recent years for giving standing ovations to just about anything that is flashy and ends with (as they say in Amadeus) “a good bang”.  There are moments, however, when a "standing o” is the only possible response.  One of those moments came at about 10:45 PM this past Saturday at the Edison Theatre when Liz Callaway, Jason Graae and Alex Rybeck took their final bows at the end of their cabaret show Backstage Broadway Buddies.  And although (to paraphrase one of the evening’s songs) the moment had passed as those of us in attendance exited the theatre a few minutes later, it seemed to me that all of us did so with smiles on our faces, knowing we’d seen one hell of a performance.

Although Callaway and Graae open and close the evening with some inspired and often very funny duets, Backstage Broadway Buddies is actually two different cabaret shows with two different but not entirely unrelated performance styles.  Liz Callaway, who opened the evening, has a somewhat more structured act and her material leans heavily towards ballads and songs with a wide emotional range that allow her to show off her seamless voice and substantial acting skills.  These are particularly evident in her finale, Maltby and Shire’s “The Story Goes On” (from Baby, 1983), and in her stunning delivery of Stephen Schwartz’s moving “Meadowlark” (from his 1976 show The Baker’s Wife, which made it to New York but not to Broadway).  That’s not to say that she can’t be very funny; she proves that in her between-songs patter and in her opening collaboration with Graae, in which they get lots of comic mileage out of songs with the word “buddy” in the refrain.  It’s just that, on the whole, Callaway has a more restrained (but no less impressive) stage persona than Graae.

Of course, just about anyone this side of Robin Williams is more restrained on stage than Graae.  From his opening send-up of theatrical ego via a slightly altered version of Kander and Ebb’s “All I Care About” to his closing medley with Callaway, Jason Graae left many of us in the house exhausted with laughter.  Whether he’s firing off a Gilbertian patter number like “I Won’t Sing a Sondheim Song” or simply riffing on the presence of the sign language interpreter on stage, Graae’s comic timing is brilliant and his imagination protean.  He’s even capable of smoothly shifting from comedy to pathos, as he does in a number that segues from Kander and Ebb’s “How Lucky Can You Get?” (which, in this context, is an ironic comment on how he got and lost a lucrative commercial voice-over deal) into a touching medley of “My Echo, My Shadow and Me” and “By Myself”.  To top it off, he plays the oboe – which Ogden Nash once labeled an “ill wind that nobody blows good” – and does a pretty credible job of it. To heck with luck; how versatile can you get?

Finally, let put in several good words for pianist and arranger Alex Rybeck.  He’s no stranger to local cabaret fans, of course, having partnered with Craig Rubano and Jeff Harnar in the Grand Center series.  In both of those shows, however, he was mostly in the background.  In Backstage Broadway Buddies he was given more opportunities to show off his considerable skill at the keyboard.  That, as they say, would be a good thing.

The bottom line is that Backstage Broadway Buddies is as entertaining an evening as any musical theatre fan could wish for.  Indeed, the show is clearly aimed at a crowd that knows and loves musical theatre and, judging from the audience response, that group was well represented Saturday night.  We all owe Edison’s Charlie Robin a massive “thank you” for bringing the show here, even if it was only for one night. 

If you had the bad fortune to miss it, let me suggest that you can get some idea of what the show was like by picking up Callaway and Graae’s CDs.  A quick search on their names at will turn them up.  Graae’s Live and the Cinegrill: An Evening of Self-Indulgence, for example, is a particularly good example of his cheerfully eclectic act.  And should either of these talented performers swing through town again you should run, not walk, to the box office to grab tickets.

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Copyright 2003 Chuck Lavazzi

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