Marilyn Maye: Her Way—A Salute to Frank Sinatra

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Marilyn Maye

Her Way—A Salute to Frank Sinatra

54 Below, NYC, April 18, 2015

Reviewed by Rob Lester for Cabaret Scenes

Marilyn-Maye-A-Salute-to-Frank-Sinatra-Cabaret-Scenes-Magazine_212“It’s quarter to three/There’s no one in the place, except you and me/So, set ‘em up, Joe…”

The classic drinker/weeper’s lament, “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” was among Marilyn Maye’s mind-bogglingly mammoth list of selections in her tribute show to that other marvelously mesmerizing music-maker, Frank Sinatra. But the “quarter to three” was actually close to the time she sang it in a unique AFTERNOON performance. And “no one in the place except you and me” could have provoked a chuckle, as the spacious 54 Below was packed. Also atypical was the detour from her comfort zone of the land of upbeat and uplifting to the discomfort of the song’s gloomy protagonist. But the barroom ballads of the premier male great American song interpreter of the Great American Songbook were a big part of his appeal, accenting his vulnerability. And so, Miss Maye went to that alcohol-filled well a few times (“Angel Eyes,” “Drinkin’ Again”), though she might be less inclined to the pity party and prefer the witty party of Cole Porter (“‘Well, Did You Evah!’/What a swell party this is”) she did a (too-short) section of, remarking, “Oh! I’m so glad we’re doing this one!” as it began. Truth be told, the lady who drinks optimism for breakfast can and does and always did sound luscious on a ballad, can dig into it, even if the clouds of drear and droopiness don’t really stand a chance against her inherent sunshine.

(After all, her mother named her for singer of yore Marilyn Miller of “Look for the Silver Lining” fame.

) Rather than hop on the bar for another Scotch, she hopscotches her way through the Sinatra songbag, not chronologically – or “logically” in any particular way, except grouping songs by subject (sometimes). There was no sense of inevitability about what number would come next, as she shuffled the decades and concentrated on numbers that were not just passing hits, but frequent selections from his concert repertoire and things he’s recorded more than once.

“Start spreading the news/She’s [NOT] leaving today”: Marilyn and her merry band of musicians will be holding forth and holding down the fort most nights at 54 Below for the rest of April. And she’ll also tirelessly be working her “day job”—as vocal coach and director, one-on-one and in master class groups.

Those with frequent flyer miles as Maye audience members (and she has a strong line of hypnotized followers second only to those who were entranced by the Pied Piper’s piping) heard some familiar numbers. (Extra points to longtime Sinatra fans reading this who immediately thing of the Pied Pipers singing group he chimed in with in his early Tommy Dorsey days, but I am referring to the legend of the guy with the pipe who dealt with vermin rather than velvety songs.) “One for My Baby…” had been in her Johnny Mercer tribute, and her Cole Porter medley stuffed fuller than a Thanksgiving turkey yielded some familiar spice and juice. But many of the selections were not recycled from other outings. The tribute to the 100th anniversary of Sinatra’s birth (expect an avalanche of others, undoubtedly less satisfying and less savvy) gives her a chance to play with some oldies that probably wouldn’t have crossed her mind to include: “Love and Marriage” (she’s had her share of both items) and “High Hopes.” Both are by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, and she let the audience sing along on them and prove they knew the words, as if we needed evidence that the target audience for such a show was prominently present.

Sinatra’s mega-signature “My Way” would not be something I’d expect to find in Maye’s notebook otherwise, but, undaunted, she included it and by God, she did it her way and made the words come alive as only a veteran can and has earned the right to do. The words rang true.

In very good voice, and bursting with her trademark boundless energy, Marilyn Maye strutted across 54 Below’s stage, dedicating her recital to the Man himself, adding her own lyrics in sweet salute. Near the beginning there was the tweaked “Memories of You” which the show to come helped stir, without totally evoking his style in any ill-fitting way. At the end was “The Song Is You,” a number I remember her entering with in her first NYC club act in many years. But now she made it honoring the way this and so many other gems were canonized by Sinatra, a man she admits she never got to meet. But both learned how to entertain and give the audience what they expect, want, and cherish. The 100th birth anniversary had a nice double whammy about endurance with its opening number, “Fly Me to the Moon” (“In Other Words”), although she didn’t mention that 1915 was also the birth year of that song’s composer-lyricist, Bart Howard. She did, however, mention the very recent loss of another writer who gave Sinatra a prominent classic, and made it well into his 90s, Ervin Drake, as she warmly sang his “It Was a Very Good Year,” with gender reassignment surgery to the lyric. Unlike some other crammed-in items, she sang the full lyric to honor the man who’d been in many cabaret show audiences, including hers.

Arguably in the tradition of the “I did it my way” logic, she changed/substituted/approximated words here and there to suit her preference or memory gap (beyond the aforementioned purposefully original swaths of lines in tribute). In one case, we few sticklers were momentarily bothered by an imperfect rhyme. But certainly, it didn’t suit the Maye way to end “That’s Life” with throwing in the towel to have the last word be an intention to “die,” so she stopped the song and acknowledged that was how he sang it, but said she preferred to rhyme “July” with a choice to “fly” (not so glaringly daringly against the grain, as the word is found earlier in the song). And another adjustment introduced the new idea of maybe being “too old” and was summarily rejected, eliciting some of the biggest cheers of support during the Olympic-level performance. (Although she didn’t mention that she’s actually just had another birthday the week before, the generous octogenarian instead had everyone join her in singing “Happy Birthday” to attending celebrant journalist Magda Katz.)

With her every step of the way was a quartet, only two being her usual New York contingent. Pianist Tedd Firth led the way with his smiling professionalism and some superb solo moments. Tom Hubbard on bass was sole accompanist for the beginnings of songs a couple of times, which made for striking highlights. Eric Halvorson, a longtime regular at the Scott Siegel-hosted Broadway-themed shows at The Town Hall fit in nicely, and the presence of a guitarist was a welcome addition—especially one as skilled as Jack Cavari. While the whirling dervish named Marilyn rarely stops even momentarily, more solos from her accomplished band members would be a treat. And, if I were granted a wish list, I’d request some digging deeper into the Frank files, as there are some lesser-known things that could give added interest and a fuller view of his career and choices, even perhaps misguided ones. Songs he championed that didn’t go on to lasting fame would show another aspect. Others would be representative of their specific time periods’ musical trends, for historical interest.

As mentioned, Marilyn has a habit of changing words here and there. Sinatra would have approved, and I think he would have approved of this tribute show that captures aspects of his spirit and underlying love for the songs and their creators. She includes one Rodgers & Hart number he would even sometime in rhyme switch up; although she sings the title phrase as written, Sinatra’s change could apply to the magic-producing Maye with this show and at this newest highpoint in her career: “The Lady Is a Champ.”

Marilyn Maye continues to do it her way at 54 Below April 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 30. All shows at 7 pm, except for April 24, which is at 8:30 pm.

Rob Lester

2015 is native New Yorker Rob Lester's eighth year as contributing writer, beginning by reviewing a salute to Frank Sinatra, whose recordings have played on his personal soundtrack since the womb. (His Cabaret Scenes Foundation member mom started him with her favorite; like his dad, he became an uber-avid record collector/ fan of the Great American Songbook's great singers and writers.) Soon, he was attending shows, seeking out up-and-comers and already-came-ups, still reading and listening voraciously. He also writes for and, has been cabaret-centric as awards judge, panel member/co-host, and produces benefit/tribute shows, including one for us.