Marilyn Maye

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Marilyn Maye

54 Below, NYC, April 9, 2024

Reviewed by Frank Dain

Marilyn Maye
Photo: Maryann Lopinto

Marilyn Maye returned to NYC’s 54 Below for her annual engagement, this time to celebrate her 96th birthday. (Yes, her 96th!) For this outing, she chose a program of her favorite songs from American musicals, songs which reveal much about the characters for whom they were written. What a wise choice this was; we were treated to the melding of Maye the singer with Maye the actress. Maye the singer is still a joy to hear; she was in control of her instrument, able to move from soft to robust, and it’s always in service to the material. She continues to show great respect for the songwriters she has chosen to showcase, even if she has changed a lyric to suit a particular need or has bent the melody as all great jazz singers do. Maye the actress has always mined the lyrics to convey the story she wanted to tell, as all good cabaret performers should do. Over the past few years, she seems to have dug deeper to reveal the inner lives of these characters and to make the songs mini acts.

She greeted us with “Golden Rainbow” (Walter Marks) then moved onto Sondheim’s “Old Friends” to make us feel at home. We were treated to songs by Jerry Herman that included selections from Hello, Dolly! In the show’s title song in which Maye inserted the names of some of those in the audience’ She followed with “Elegance” and “Ribbons Down My Back.”  (Maye has recorded the entire score to Dolly!, singing all of the songs, including those written for the other characters.) From Herman’s Mame, a role she has also played, she offered the title song as well as a beautiful and deeply moving “If He Walked into My Life.” Of course, one of her signature songs, “It’s Today,” is from that score and during it she executed not two, not three, but seven kicks! (Did I mention she’s 96?!) There were selections from My Fair Lady (Lerner & Loewe), including her jazz-influenced “On the Street Where You Live.” From Frank Loesser she gave us “Luck Be a Lady” (Guys and Dolls), and a mesmerizing “Joey, Joey, Joey” (The Most Happy Fellow).

Some years ago, Maye participated in rehearsals for a possible Broadway revival of Ballroom, with music by Billy Goldenberg and lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. She was to play the band singer, with Tyne Daly cast as the lead. During those rehearsals, Daly would tell Maye that she should sing the character’s 11-o’clock number, “Fifty Percent.” Luckily for us, Maye heeded that advice; she has made the song one of the highlights of her shows and tonight was no exception. She began with the verse, which perfectly set up the song, and proceeded to act the hell out of the number. The character’s emotional arc was on full, realized display. There was the disbelief that this woman’s life had changed in unexpected and welcome ways and that she had come to understand that, as wonderful as this new life was, there would always be a bittersweet aspect to it. Wonder, joy, and a touch of sadness all played across Maye’s face, and these emotions were also evident in her vocal delivery. It was a master class in how simplicity and honesty are all that is needed to get to the heart of a song. There are no histrionics in a Maye performance.

As would be expected in any Maye show, she featured some of her own parody lyrics. None were more fun that her rewrite of “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” (Sam H. Stept/Sidney Clare), in which she implored us to “Please TALK about me when I’m gone.”

Throughout the evening, Maye was supported by her trio, who were completely in sync with her. Longtime music director Tedd Firth, who continues to amaze, made the piano sound like an orchestra; Tom Hubbard on bass provided his clean, unfussy finger work; and drummer/percussionist Mark McLean supplied subtle precision and occasional percussive humor to accent Maye’s own.

But the night belonged to Marilyn Maye. This may have been her birthday, but we’re the ones who have been given a gift. She’s at 54 Below through April 20, and she’ll return with performances May 2, 5, & 6. This is a show you don’t want to miss.