Marilyn Maye (Photo provided by Marilyn Maye.)
On a particularly blustery night before Thanksgiving, I found myself ensconced in the gilded glory of Feinstein’s/54 Below awaiting the legendary Marilyn Maye. Having only been exposed to the Grammy-nominated singer’s work in recent years, I’d been waiting for her return to the New York stage. Her recent engagement is the culmination of a storied career that spans more than 80 years, having begun by winning a 13-week radio appearance in Topeka, Kansas, at age nine.
Perfectly coiffed and manicured, and donning an elegant blue-sequined blouse, Ms. Maye began the evening with Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “This Song is You,” a bit raspy, perhaps, but with a presence and phrasing that gleamed like her bedecked broach. She confessed to battling a cold, and at 90 years old, the accomplished singer said, “Thank god I’m alive.” She broke her own rules of cabaret (Ms. Maye offers a master class for singers) by chatting up the audience more than usual, but her stories of playing The Colony in Kansas City and her 70-plus appearances on The Tonight Show captivated the audience.
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Evening highlights included an earthy arrangement of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” by Burton Lane and Alan Jaye Lerner, featuring a twinkling piano solo by conductor Tedd Firth. Bassist Tom Hubbard and drummer Daniel Glass also had their moments in the spotlight, as well as a guest appearance by trumpet player Benny Bennack, to whom Ms. May said, “boy, you’ve got a lip, honey.” She also touched upon the Steve Allen songbook with “I Love You Today” from the short-lived Broadway musical Sophie based on the life of Sophie Tucker.
A look among the audience (which at this particular performance included Hedwig and the Angry Inch co-creator and star John Cameron Mitchell and Dana Delaney, who recently appeared in MCC Theater’s Collective Rage) revealed Ms. Maye’s magnetic charm. Heads were bobbing, toes tapping, and smiles all around. Her exquisite phrasing piqued again in Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s, “Here’s That Rainy Day,” a song Ms. Maye repeatedly sang on The Tonight Show per the request of then host Johnny Carson. Ms. Maye also presented her jazzy spin on Broadway standards with a medley of songs from My Fair Lady, currently playing at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont.
The evening concluded with holiday favorites and an American tribute sing-a-long (“America the Beautiful, “God Bless America”) that might be hard notes to hit for those feeling that the state of the union is in a bit of disarray. But with Ms. Maye at the helm, all seemed right, at least for the night.
Those looking for their cabaret fix this holiday season will be thrilled at what Feinstein’s/54 Below has stuffed into its entertainment stocking. Upcoming highlights include:
Liz Callaway: A Hymn to Her
December 3 – 8
Emmy winner and Tony nominee Liz Callaway turns to the women who have inspired her to become the woman she is. Drawing from a vivid cross-section including Eydie Gormé, Barbara Cook, Carole King, Billie Jean King, Julia Child, Nora Ephron, and more, Liz pays tribute to her sheroes in story and song. Expect to hear songs by Carole King, Carly Simon, Stephen Sondheim, Sara Bareilles, Maltby & Shire, Leonard Bernstein, Irving Berlin and more in this unforgettable evening of musical storytelling.
Norm Lewis: Nutcracker Cool
December 17 -22
Broadway performer Norm Lewis returns for his fourth annual holiday residency, bringing along his swingin’ band, including Perry Cavari and George Farmer, led by musical director Joseph Joubert and directed by his longtime pal, Richard Jay-Alexander. This year’s show will also coincide with the release of The NORM LEWIS Christmas Album.
Michael Feinstein: Swingin’ with the Season
December 23 – 30
With the spirit of the season as well as Manhattan’s Golden Age, walk with Feinstein through a winter wonderland of sparkling swing standards and holiday favorites. Songs will include “White Christmas” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” plus American Songbook standards from Gershwin to Cole Porter, to celebrate the magic of Christmastime.
Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor and chief critic. Read more of his culture writing at wexlerwrites.com.