By Marc Miller
88, Marilyn Maye's voice is showing signs of age, and that's a good thing. The
upper ends of the diva's belt range are getting a little raspy, a little throatier.
It makes for less lovely, but more expressive, tones. Not that Maye's powers of
expression were ever muted. But now, with this new growliness, she has an
additional weapon in her formidable arsenal.
at Michael Feinstein's 54 Below, "Highlights"--"It's got nothing
to do with my hair," she assures an adoring crowd--is a retrospective of a
70-year-plus career with stretches of spoken, off-the-cuff autobiography. Aided
by Billy Stritch (piano), Tom Hubbard (bass), and Ray Marchica (drums), she
makes beautiful music from the get-go, with an "I've Grown Accustomed to
Her Face" tricked out with some pretty good special lyrics: "I've
grown accustomed to the tune/ You ask for me to croon." Then it's down a
not always happy memory lane, with multiple marriages to guys who liked to
drink, and a career that stalled out as rock singer-songwriters increasingly
crowded out her market in the 1970s and beyond. She's not known for singing
that stuff, but one doesn't doubt she could. She does fine with a snatch of
"Make Your Own Kind of Music," and, recounting how a 1940s radio
station she worked for suddenly went country, serves up a "Your Cheatin'
Heart" that successfully fuses elegant and twangy.
credit Nella Vera.
and Stritch seem to be crazy about each other, and when they scat together,
it's not Ella-style improvisation, but meticulously worked out patterns that
honor the melody even while bending it. The voice, if a little frayed in spots,
is still rangy and emotional--in its huskier moments, there's more than a whiff
of late Rosemary Clooney--and the song choices trod merrily across many genres
in the Great American Songbook. Her "My Romance" is sung like the
dewy 21-year-old she was when married to her first drunk, and her
"Honeysuckle Rose" is as innuendo-filled as a popular song can
possibly be. Her "Step to the Rear," which made her a mint when she
recorded it as a jingle for Lincoln Mercury, is as sturdy as a 1970 Continental
Mark IV, and it's a delight to hear her mock "Sherry," from the flop
musical of the same name, even as she honors it.
autobio sections could be trimmed, though they're filled with names a bunch of
us of a certain age recall with a smile: Steve Allen, Don Costa, Louis Nye,
Bill Dana. (Surprisingly, there's no mention of Johnny Carson, on whose
late-night show she appeared 76 times, a record.) Interesting tidbits pop
up--can you imagine her as Pistache in Can-Can? she's played it--and
they're largely just bridges into the next number. Her generally optimistic,
embrace-life persona seems especially well suited to Jerry Herman, and an
eccentrically paced "Hello, Dolly!" is a "Highlights"
highlight. But Maye can do much more. Exhibit A: a closing "I'm Still
Here" that may be the best you'll ever hear, backed by a long lifetime of
experience and a triumphalism that tempers the Sondheim acid. "Lord knows
at least I was there, and I'm here." Baby, you know it.
Maye appears at Michael Feinstein's 54 Below through May 20. For schedule,