By Martha Wade Steketee
January in Manhattan means Marilyn Maye has brought her post New Year “by request” performances to the cozy and classy Metropolitan Room. The concept is delightful: woven into familiar tunes her existing fans yearn to hear, patrons have the option of submitting a tune request when they make their reservation. “This is my sixth year to do this,” Maye noted of the fluid scheme, “because I don’t have any sense.” The set list for each performance varies with moods of performer and audience, resulting in enchantment and camaraderie with a jazzy backbeat.
On this first night of performances that run through January 15, my corner table holds a group of strangers who become family. A fellow theater journalist, two friends of the publicist from out of town, a jazz pianist and a vocalist in town for a conference, and a young actor, about to make his Broadway debut, and his family. During the evening, I swayed and cried with the jazz piano man to my left, laughed at the emotional heart of the performances with the rest of the table, and bonded as family with the whole group before the night was through.
This latest edition of “Marilyn by Request” provided repertoire staples and a few new items, Maye and her three thrilling musicians — pianist/conductor Billy Stritch, bassist Tom Hubbard, and drummer Eric Halvorson — delivered innovative arrangements, intriguing medleys, and emotions of all favors (tears to guffaws) in old familiars and rare gems alike. The team knows how to ride the rhythm of a set list, some sections of which I’ll highlight.
Maye high-kicked to her standard from Jerry Herman’s Mame, “It’s Today,” then eased into Cole Porter’s “All of You” and Stephen Sondheim’s reflective “Old Friends” from Merrily We Roll Along. “I Love Being Here With You” (William Schluger and Peggy Lee) provided terrific solo riff opportunities for bassist Hubbard and drummer Halvorson.
Maye delivers on a request for the three-act play “Guess Who I Saw Today” (Murray Grand and Elisse Boyd) half way through the set. This tune’s story of a woman relating her day of unraveling while observing her cheating husband to her cheating husband, with its slowly building pathos, illustrates Maye’s acting chops every time I hear her perform it.
While Maye has the record as the most frequent guest on the Tonight Show in the Johnny Carson era, this evening we are treated to a performance segment that pays tribute to Carson’s predecessor. Steve Allen spied Maye on a trip through Kansas City and was an early champion of her gifts. Allen is known to many as performer and witty conversationalist from his role as the first host of The Tonight Show, appearances on game shows like I’ve Got a Secret and What’s My Line?, and guest performer on variety shows like The Judy Garland Show (1963-64). Allen was also a prolific songwriter, and Maye selected from his thousands of songs to honor him. “This Could Be the Start of Something” was written for the television show The Bachelor then adopted as the theme song for The Tonight Show with Steve Allen. And performances of two tunes from his short-lived Broadway musical Sophie, based on the life of Sophie Tucker — the delicate and oddball love song “I Love You Today” and the swinging carefree “When I’m in Love” – make the case for their inclusion in the Great American Songbook.
Maye dove into an inspirational version of Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” from Follies. Yes, she stumbled on a few lyrics and restarted a few times. And through every backspace, she held the room. “I got through Barbra Streisand” she sang, and brought down the house. We know the lyrics, we know the adaptations, we know the life lived, we appreciate the experience.
The evening wound up with a high octane “Accentuate the Positive” (Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer) that resolved into a contemplative, embracing “Here’s to Life” (Artie Butler).
Here’s to you, Marilyn Maye, here’s to you.
Marilyn by Request, Thursday through Saturday January 5-7 and Wednesday through Saturday January 11-15 at 7:00 pm. and now extended for an additional two nights, Thursday, Jan. 19 and Saturday, Jan. 21 at 7pm Metropolitan room (34 West 22nd Street). For reservations and information, call 212-206-0440 or visit metropolitanroom.com.
Photos: Kevin Alvey