by Rob Lester
"It's Today" has been included in Marilyn Maye's acts for years, becoming a signature song for her with its life-affirming philosophy capturing her own joie de vivre that's so apparent on stage and off. Naturally, it caps off the all-Herman show she's doing through November 12 at Feinstein's at Loews Regency on Park Avenue. And La Cage's "The Best of Times" provides the title of her act: The Best of Times Is Now!. In her dazzling show, which I caught on its second night, the singer and songwriter seem a perfect match. The optimism and brio they share make for an obvious fit, but his ballads bring out more of the sensitive actress in the jubilantly jazzy belter. This is especially true with a wonderfully shaded reading of Mame's "If He Walked Into My Life" combined with another swirl of backward looks and memories, "And I Was Beautiful" (Dear World), melding on the latter's tear-inducing line "but then he walked away and took my smile with him." Her show is a valentine to the songwriter without any attempt to be a fact-stuffed biography.
Her talk about him is more personal, including her gratitude for his songssinging them at the annual Cabaret Convention several years ago led to her starting to work regularly in New York City again, after 14 years. "I told him I know what it's like to turn 80. You know, he's younger than me, and I resent him for that," jokes the lady who's been strutting across the stage and belting with the energy of a woman decades younger. She says that the roses on the piano were sent as an opening night gift from Herman, the man who wrote "I Won't Send Roses," after she asked him if she could adapt that Mack and Mabel leading man's song as "He Won't Send Roses" before going into the very short set of lyrics he did write for the character of Mabel. Another successful dramatic moment, it works powerfully as a woman realizing what the object of her affection is like. It's one of four numbers from that score she includes, confessing that she wishes she could do more ("Maybe next week," she hints.) Known to embellish some lyrics, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if she took that show's big number, "Look What Happened to Mabel," and changed it to "Look What Happened to Maye." For now, she settles for the lines she's also inserted into "It's Today" (" ... To me, every day is a gift ...") and a few new lines directly saluting the man of the hour (and year).
With her musical sensibilities and personalization, and strong, classy arrangements, there's no danger of the bouncy and heart-on-sleeve material becoming corny, overly sentimental, or sing-songy. Top-of-the-top-drawer musicians pianist Tedd Firth and bassist Tom Hubbard join her superb drummer of a half century's partnership, Jim Eklof, making things sound fresh and alive and crackling. This is no jumping-on-the-bandwagon with a band show. Maye and Herman go back a long time. She sang the title song from Hello, Dolly! on her first album, and her theatre career includes playing the title roles in both that show and Mame. Marilyn talks about loving the scene in that show where she had to be hanging onto and off of a huge, high-in-the-air moon and how one night, when many friends were in the audience, a technical snafu prevented the moon from rising. Certainly, the audience at Feinstein's was over the moon about this performance. One man next to me was in tears during the laments, applause was vociferous, the show ended with a genuine cheering standing ovation, and as I passed one ardent fan I've seen at almost every concert by Marilyn (once dubbed "the Maye-niacs"), I heard her say, "There's Marilyn Maye ... and then there's everybody else."
It's the high-priority, high-voltage kinetic connection with the audience that is part of her power. She works the room, with direct eye contact, ad-libbing with ringsiders and responding to and soliciting their comments. When singing "Hello, Dolly!," she substituted the names of people in the crowd, including The New York Post/ Theatre Talk's Michael Riedel and yours truly, then tossing in a blithe "Hello ..." greeting "to all of you I always call 'Sweetheart'" and then getting a double laugh about the absent-mindedness when she turned to her band and pretended she forgot their names by calling two of them the all-purpose "Sweetheart." Clearly, this is a woman who loves her audiences, and The Grand Tour's little explosion of interpersonal delight, "You I Like" neatly does the trick of saying so, its style matching her own directness. The feeling is mutual and she is at her best with The Best of Times Is Now!.
Marilyn Maye in The Best of Times is Now! through November 12 at Feinstein's at Loew's Regency at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street in New York City. For ticket reservations and club information, call (212) 339-4095 or visit feinsteinsatloewsregency.com.
Another Herman connection was Jason having toured in a Herman revue with the composer himself at the piano. After saying there is nothing like having the writer accompany a singer, looking blissful about it, he shared an awkward, tense look with his pianist, as if to say, "Oops, I guess I'm being ungracious." Pianist/musical director John Boswell, hardly chopped liver, was a perfect foil as well as terrific musical partner. Tending bar that night, Trevor Southworth was absolutely perfect as another foil, keeping an unblinking straight face as Jason sang to him and flirted in vain.
Though a Graae night is as much about the laughs as the songs, his singing remains impressive, more subtle and genuinely warm as the years go by. His ballad work was tender and his dignified and centered "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles avoided defiant damn-the-torpedoes (and damn everybody else) histrionics some push for with this number. One left the theatre with a big smile from laughter and musical appreciation, with added respect and gratitude for Graae and Herman.
[NOTE: After this review was initially filed, we received the news that Jason Graae's Jerry Herman show will return to this venue on December 7 (7 pm) and 8 (10 pm). There is a $20 cover and two-drink minimum. Reservations: (212) 695-6909.)]
And the birthday party ain't over. Richard Skipper, with his own Herman connections and a longtime career doing shows as Carol Channing, is producing and appearing in two events. One is on Saturday, November 12, for the Sheet Music Society's monthly meeting which will include a Herman song salute. Admission is $10 for non-members. The location is Local 802 - Musicians' Hall, 322 West 48th Street. And on November 28, he has more Herman up his sleeve at the Triad on West 72nd Street. Both shows also include Lee Roy Reams, another performer with Herman credentials, plus Sarah Rice, Peggy Herman, Walter Willison, Diane J. Findlay and others.
Yes, it's been quite a year for Jerry Herman salutes. They included a striking and vibrant show called Herman Sings Herman at the Metropolitan Room (and soon to return in other venues, too) by singer Peggy Herman who was once married to a salesman named Jerry Herman! And this summer, as the more famous Jerry Herman turned 80, in the Metropolitan's MetroStar singing contestant, finalist Maria Ottavia made major strides with two of his big numbers. Not that Herman's work is a rarity in cabaret by any means at any time of year. And, as we approach the holidays, we'll soon be hearing Mame's "We Need a Little Christmas" ... And don't forget the charming score from the TV musical with the original Mame, Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Santa Claus (the soundtrack recently back in print).