Cabaret Reviews by Stephen Hanks
Okay, I'll admit it. As confident as I may be as a cabaret show reviewer, there's still something more than a tad intimidating about writing a critique of a Marilyn Maye show. I mean she's Marilyn Maye, an indefatigable octogenarian (85 in April) and entertainment legend, who has been bedazzling audiences all over the country with her superb singing for a bazillion years and has me beat 76-0 in appearances on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." And me? As my grandmother might say, I'm just a "little pisher" (look it up in the Yiddish dictionary), who's only been in the cabaret criticism game for less than three years. So who the heck am I to be judging Marilyn Freakin' Maye?
Now if you're wondering after such an expression of trepidation and insecurity whether or not I'd be willing write that Marilyn Maye might have been mediocre during her new 54 Below show Maye-den Voyage--the answer is, well, yes, I would. But if there is a Good Lord above, I want to profusely thank her for not making me face that choice. Marilyn Maye be anything but marvelous? I don't think that's physically, scientifically, or musically possible.
But even the great Ms. Maye can exhibit some anxiety about her craft and a new show. While I was hosting the recent BroadwayWorld.com Cabaret Awards event at the Metropolitan Room (Maye won for "Best Duo or Group" for her show last year with Michael Feinstein, and won indirectly when Billy Stritch took "Best Musical Director" for her "By Request" show), I was worried she wouldn't arrive on time to perform her two numbers. I discreetly scooted to the lounge area to check and breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing her smiling and ready to hit the stage. After an awkward "Whew, I'm glad you're here," I decided to make some kiss-up-to-the-star small talk, telling her I couldn't believe she was preparing to set sail on a 10-show run at 54 Below. "Are you saying that because you're impressed that I have the energy or because you don't think I can get enough audience for 10 shows?" she asked, looking slightly concerned as she placed her hand gently on my arm. It was the former, of course, I reassured her (I'd already been blown away by her endurance when I saw her second of two New Year's Eve shows at the Met Room) and then it was Marilyn breathing the sigh of relief.
Wednesday night was the second of Maye's first-ever 54 Below run (which will continue until March 16; see end of review for show schedule) and she sashayed around the stage in front of an almost full house like a woman of 35. But then Marilyn must be in great performing shape given that she's been running all over New York appearing at various award shows (Nightlife, BroadwayWorld, Bistro, and the upcoming MACs on March 21), variety shows (such as the recent "Lyrics & Lyricists" series at the 92Y), and the "Art of Performance" Master Class in cabaret she offers in New York during her rare days off. Like most of her shows, Maye's performance at 54 Below was a "live" cabaret Master Class for budding cabaret performers (moi included) and seasoned professionals alike, and this "Maye-den Voyage" never went adrift (thanks in part to solid and unobtrusive support from Tedd Frith on piano, Tom Hubbard on bass, and Jim Eklof on drums).
From her opening Cole Porter medley, during which she playfully sniffed and rubbed her nose on "Some get a kick from cocaine" (doing a line with Marilyn Maye--how's that for an image?), to the many vocal colors she brought to a jazzy arrangement of "Golden Rainbow" (from the short-lived 1968 Steve Lawrence/Edie Gorme musical), through a "Love Affair Suite" (my moniker for another song section), when her deeper register got down, dirty, and delicious on a mashup of "Lover Man" and "When Your Lover Has Gone," to her classic rendition of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "Blues in the Night" (I mean, really, can anyone sing this better?), to her sensational staccato and scatting on Paul Desmond's lyrics for Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," this musical force of nature exuded her joy in singing and passion for performing, and obviously relished cavorting in a space she lovingly called a "nightclub." And only Marilyn Maye can say that without making it sound like a put-down of cabarets. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)