Callaway’s Anthems Soothe New Yorkers

I once described the phenomenal Ann Hampton Callaway’s position in the tenuous world of girl singers as that of a silver Bentley in a parking lot full of secondhand Hondas. Watching her electrify a jaded audience in her current show at Feinstein’s at the Regency (through Nov. 3), I now amend that opinion: She owns the whole damned block.

Signature is the name of both the act and her forthcoming CD tribute to the songs of the great jazz singers of the 20th century. Do not pass “Go”; do not collect a reward. Just add the name Ann Hampton Callaway to that rarefied list immediately. Then get yourself to Feinstein’s as fast as you can flag down a taxi and find out why. As thrilling as she is to hear on vinyl, you don’t get the full dynamics of her personality on a disc. For the total essence of her magnitude, you have to see her in person. From Nat King Cole’s rousing “Route 66″ to Ella Fitzgerald’s gently cooking “Mr. Paganini,” she not only scales the map but maps the scales. With her polished skills as an actress (what do you mean, you didn’t catch her Tony-nominated work in Swing! ) and her supersonic range and intonation, she not only celebrates the great jazz stylists of all time, she can imitate them as well.

Singing like Sarah Vaughan on “Tenderly,” she reaches low notes you can only get on church organs. In the flicker of an eyelash, she can switch from self-described “ballad bondage mistress” (her brokenhearted 2 a.m. nod to Sinatra on “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” is a prime example of what happens when bad things happen to good people) to hip-happy finger-snappy bopster (Annie Ross’ famous Count Basie evergreen”Twisted” sprouts new foliage). On Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning, Heartache,” she’s a fragile azalea munching a moonbeam; on Mel Tormé’s “Pick Yourself Up,” a blindingly bright sunflower blasting through neon. With skills honed from so much musical intuition and experience, she can even scat like Tormé, creating her own lyrics in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach.

She has the chops and the awesome range to establish a mood on each song that impacts the listener with heightened concentration. And she has the charm to make you work for your money while you’re spending it. In the audience-participation part of the show, people call out unrelated lines and phrases which somehow miraculously find their way into a complete song that makes perfect sense. On opening night, George Steinbrenner yelled, “The Yankees!”; Liza Minnelli called out, “I love New York now more than ever!”; and I blurted, “Bring back rye Old-Fashioneds!” The improvised result was a show-stopping star-spangled anthem to New York that was good enough to record. None of this talent seems show-off precocious, self-serving or inserted purposelessly to dazzle. It just bubbles inside her until it boils to the top. The notes are happening at the same moment she’s feeling them.

Like an experienced yachtsman, she sails through some wild seas and always comes to safe harbor, anchoring the most challenging chromatic changes in the reliable security of vocal perfection. All of her technical clarity, harmonic shapeliness and tonal control comes together on an awesome “Blues in the Night” that fuses enough elements of jazz, pop and gospel to stop traffic. If Mahalia Jackson could swing, she would sound like this.

Abnormal times of crisis and confusion demand supernaturally gifted talents with the power to lift spirits and cure depression. At Feinstein’s, Ann Hampton Callaway lowers the anxiety threshold better than a gas mask. She was born to sing. And I was born to listen.

Boy Meets Girl; Girl Meets Baby

A friend of mine describes Drew Barrymore as angel-food cake with runny frosting. An irresistible mess, she makes an enormously appealing centerpiece in Riding in Cars with Boys , a film with honesty, sincerity and a great big heart that’s based on the

best-selling memoir by Beverly Donofrio, a smart, pretty child of the schizophrenic 60’s whose dreams of college and a writing career were dashed by marriage, motherhood and sacrifice. With a moronic high-school dropout named Ray for a husband (goofily, charmingly and exasperatingly well-played by Steve Zahn) and a baby on the way, Bev’s dreams of a college scholarship were deferred early, and the consequences of the lumpy mess she made of her life continued to plague her for the next 20 years.

In time, the idiot Ray goes from drinking beer and watching the Three Stooges to using heroin. Just when Bev is finally on the verge of moving to California to accept state-financed tuition at Berkeley, she has to nurse Ray out of his addiction. Bev’s reluctance to desert him when the chips are down is taken for granted. (“Women want to forgive; it’s in their nature or something,” he says, scratching his crotch.) But Ray never grows up, and Bev’s attempts to assert her independence are thwarted by one damned thing after another. When she desperately resorts to selling pot in her kitchen to save up enough money to go to N.Y.U., her own son turns her in, and her best friend Fay (another victim of teenage pregnancy) uses the money to bail her out of jail.

One of the strange things about the film is the missing second act, where Bev finally gets her act together. Eschewing character development, director Penny Marshall cuts abruptly to the finale. Divorced from the hopeless Ray at last, with a grown-up son in college and a job in publishing, Bev finally summons the courage to shape her experiences into an autobiographical novel. Even now, she has to dredge up the painful past when the publisher sends her back to Connecticut to get Ray’s signed permission to use his name in the tell-all book. Bev and her son, Jason, who haven’t seen Ray in years, find a sallow, toothless shell of a man, living in a squalid trailer with a shrewish second wife (Rosie Perez) and haunted by a life of regret. The harrowing reunion is a disaster, but Bev learns that love means letting go. This time it’s the child who becomes the parent, and everyone finds redemption in forgiveness.

Even though huge chunks of exposition are missing, the sincere performances and the sobering candor with which Ms. Donofrio tells her story elevate Riding in Cars with Boys above the level of yet another single-mom soap opera. Here is a girl who spends her whole life blaming her father, husband and child for wrecking her chances, only to end up with a remarkable son who refuses to play the blame game. The wrenching emotional impact is inescapable.

Penny Marshall gets the period details just right. The cars with the shark-fin armor; the confusion of the sexual revolution; the Tupperware prisons in which nice girls were trapped after making mistakes that ruined their reputations, narrowed their choices and altered their futures; the clothes and the hairstyles and the phony role models no teen-ager could live up to-they’re all captured with humor and sadness.

Ms. Barrymore captures every lost illusion in a clear-eyed performance that elicits your sympathy at the same time you’re aching to wring her neck. She has become an actress of nuance and balance, capable of illuminating every shadowy corner of a complex character with power and self-confidence. Watching her grow is one of the most satisfying sidebars of a critic’s career. And Steve Zahn is the most likable heel you’ll ever meet, while sensitive, Australian-born actor Adam Garcia as Bev’s college-age son-torn between responsibility for his own screwy mother and determination to prevent history from repeating itself in his own life-is the most attractive and intelligent newcomer I’ve seen on the screen this year.