Spending time with Marilyn Maye is like partying with a warm, salt-of-the-earth friend or relative visiting from the Midwest. Despite formidable talent and second-nature polish fostered during 70 years onstage (?!), there’s never a diva moment. Her breezy celebration of the work of Jerry Herman (on the occasion of his 80th birthday) fits like couture on the unpretentious Maye. Not only has she played the leading lady in a number of his shows, her intuited understanding of Herman’s women is palpable. And, yes, there is definitely a Jerry Herman woman.
As she winds her way through the audience-all black sequined exuberance-to strains of “Big Time” (Mack and Mabel) and “Open a New Window” (Mame), we know we’re in for a shindig. The lovely, subdued “You I Like” (Grand Tour): You I like, so let me tip my hat/In your path, I spread my welcome mat… bridges her greeting to the iconic “Hello Dolly.” Maye vocally calls out hellos by name, acknowledging friends and fans, ending with “hello all of you that I always call honey.” Like Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner, this is a broad. A great growly wow, wow, wow fellas is indicative of a huskiness increasingly peppering her performance. The sound adds texture and variation to still plush open-throated phrases.
Additionally offering songs not sung by Dolly herself,* the entertainer (fewer fit this bill today) sashays through “Elegance” with a little shoulder-tipping two step and a dip or two- followed by a touching rendition of “It Only Takes a Moment” that completely stills the house. As Maye gazes upward, one imagines her remembering rather than portraying. She seems to communicate by sharing life experience. Numbers from Mame and Dear World, provide ample opportunity to speak from history with both sassy jazz styling and the enriched sensitivity of ballads. During a compelling “I Don’t Want to Know,” Tedd Firth’s piano/arrangement undulates beneath phrases like waves as he physically undulates –from the waist up-on the piano bench.
“Shalom” and “Milk and Honey” (Milk and Honey), are extremely familiar territory for Maye who has been, she admits, requested to sing them at endless bar mitzvahs. (It’s been a year during which these rarely heard melodies have also been brought to light by the estimable Musicals Tonight who revived the show in October). She sways into the simple lyrics with the pleasure of a convincing emotional core.
When Maye told Herman she would sing “I Don’t Send Roses,” one of three beautiful, heart rending numbers from Mack and Mabel worthy of more exposure, his response was “Does it work?” It does. They do. All are achingly sympathetic. Herman sent roses, which sit atop the piano.
To say Marilyn Maye interacts with her audience is an understatement the size of Kansas. Personal exposition, though present, is less important than connecting, whether by eye contact, wisecracking, or soliciting response. Professionalism is sufficiently consummate for her to call out her own failing in the organization of cheat-sheet lyrics whose very existence she decries. We don’t begrudge her aids, only wish they were better handled.
“Well, this is the big closure…” A medley of “The Best of Times” (La Cage aux Folles) and “It’s Today” (Mame), replete with dance kicks, effusive arpeggios and special lyrics, ends the 1 hour 20 minute show with a rallying, crowd-pleasing whomp. The audience rises to its feet.
This is an old school, good time evening of skill, finesse, and sincerity much admired.
*The new CD: Marilyn Maye Sings All of Jerry Herman’s Hello Dolly
The Best of Times is Now!
Marilyn Maye- Vocals
Tedd Firth- Music Director/Piano
Tom Hubbard- Bass
Jim Eklof- Drums
Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency
540 Park Ave at 61st Street