It’s not at all hard to see why Marilyn Maye was Johnny Carson’s favorite singer, appearing some 76 times on the Tonight Show. From her big New York comeback at the Metropolitan Room in 2006, where she stunned a heard-it-all, jaded cabaret audience with the ravishing, imperishable freshness of her voice and phrasing, she has been a happily constant presence in Manhattan.
With “Maye-den Voyage”, her show at 54 Below, she does nothing but consolidate her eminence as the reigning queen of cabaret. Name one other singer who brings such mellifluous tonality, supernal phrasing, emotional resonance, and, essentially, pure ebullient joy to her work. A Cole Porter medley started her set and, resplendent in red, she opened with that killer charmer, “Looking at You,” which had me immediately in her silken pocket, with its lovely evocation of two other cabaret aristocrats who loved to sing it: Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short. She wove her bewitching way through “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Just One of Those Things,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and a splendidly sexy “All of You,” making each one of these oft-done chestnuts utterly her own.
People blather on about the importance of hearing new or more varied music in cabaret, but let’s face it, the Great American Songbook is what we all really love and want to hear, especially as done by one of its last remaining truly great interpreters. Maye’s brilliance was completely matched by the unmatched piano stylings of the greatest accompanist in the business right now, Ted Firth. Their superbly sinuous interaction, with each taking a cue from the other’s sublimely hip and fluid approach to these familiar tunes was pure magic, pure jazz, causing listener endorphins to positively flood the room.
One after another, like gloriously triumphant cannon volleys, came the beloved standards, often cannily entwined in wonderfully chosen musical bouquets: a rapturous “Get Happy Medley” (with happy guy Vincent Youmans’ “I Want to Be Happy” and Sometimes I’m Happy”), a throbbing “Lover Man” with “When Your Lover Has Gone,” a shimmering ”Lazy Afternoon” with Blossom Dearie’s “Bye Bye Country Boy.”
The songs of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer demand a seasoned performer who can bring authentic, hard-won life experience – as well as excellent pipes – to really put them across, otherwise the rendition, however prettily sung, can seem just paltry and bland. Maye, like the late Margaret Whiting, has this in spades, and to hear her do “Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home” or “Blues in the Night” is a simple master class in interpretation, or, more simply put, really feeling and knowing that music.
And, when it comes to sheer sophistication, Maye has few rivals, as witness the effortless, yet impassioned rueful humor and resignation she brings to those classic bar ditties, “Guess Who I Saw Today” and “Something Cool.” She makes you know this particular urban lady, who slips out of the afternoon sun and her mink into a dark boite for a drink and dawning self-discovery.
The Divine One, as I think she should now be officially dubbed, ended her set with a beneficent job on “On a Clear Day,” which simply made you, like it says in the song, glad to be alive. And, as if all that went before weren’t enough, she sizzlingly encored with Paul Desmond’s lyrics to “Take Five,” the complexity alone of which would easily defeat any singer a third of this magnificently ageless lady’s age. Incidentally, I don’t think she’ll mind my mentioning that this April 10. she turns an astounding 85.
EXTENDED! April 1 & 5, 2013
Cover charge: $40 – $50