Press and Reviews


New York, NY – June 15, 2009


Standards Delivered With Sock-It-to-’Em Attitude

By Stephen Holden


As Marilyn Maye threaded her way from the stage through a packed house of cheering admirers at the Metropolitan Room at the end of Friday’s opening-night performance of “Mercer ... the Maye Way,” I overheard comparisons to Judy Garland’s 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall.


Hyperbole? Perhaps. I wasn’t at Carnegie Hall 48 years ago, but I know the recording from that performance, on which you can sense a similar electric connection between singer and audience. Suffice it to say that Ms. Maye came across during the nearly 2-hour, 35-song show as the embodiment and summation of a brash sock-it-to-’em nightclub tradition that runs from Garland through Bette Midler, but with jazz added.


Johnny Mercer, her show’s subject, should be smiling with relief wherever he is. Salutes this year to the centennial of Mercer’s birth have treated his legacy perfunctorily. Ms. Maye declared that he and Cole Porter were her favorite songwriters.


Simply for her stamina, Ms. Maye, 81, is a phenomenon. She performed the entire show standing up, without having to catch her breath, her pitch unwavering. Her voice at the end of the evening had as much body and suppleness as at the beginning. Since the days when she was a regular guest on “Tonight” with Johnny Carson (she appeared 76 times), that voice has only deepened and grown in size, and her interpretations have gained in dramatic authority. But she is no drama queen. There is plenty of emotion, but feelings always remain in perspective.


She is accompanied by a trio whose leader, Tedd Firth, is a true jazz musician. (Tom Hubbard plays bass and Jim Eklof drums.) Some of the show’s most thrilling moments were when Ms. Maye and Mr. Firth challenged each other to push the energy level up several notches and go for broke.


Resilience is her message. For all the echoes of Garland in Ms. Maye’s singing, she doesn’t project the fragility of a performer neurotically dependent on adulation. She is at all times self-contained and often funny at her own expense.


Her extraordinary rendition of “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” forsakes the usual crying-in-your-whiskey attitude taken by interpreters of this saloon standard. Instead of surrendering to the blues, the character she creates defies them and aggressively enlists Joe the bartender as an ally in holding back the darkness.


“Blues in the Night,” another standard that Frank Sinatra turned into a protracted after-hours lament, Ms. Maye and the band took at a brisk pace, with Ms. Maye treating the Mercer lyrics as a wised-up, that’s-the-way-it-is observation about a world of hard emotional knocks leading to unhappy endings.


Although the show had tender moments — “Skylark” and “I Remember You” stood out — Ms. Maye is more concerned with looking at life clearly, keeping a sense of humor, and getting on with things. In her imagination, she said, the musical setting of the world should be “a jazz waltz.” Here we go: one two three ... one two three ...