Perhaps it's unflattering, at first glance, to use an adjective more commonly applied to equipment (tires, say) when describing a woman of great talent, beauty and charm. But how else can you describe a phenomenal performer who, near the middle of her eighth decade, still can hit and sustain notes that would give most singers half her age, or younger, stomach cramps? Instead of steel-belted radials, Marilyn Maye has steel-belted vocal cords. We're secretly convinced that, tucked away in a box in her attic, Dorian Gray-style, there is Marilyn Maye's alternate, shriveled larynx.
Marilyn Maye spreading happiness on her opening night at Feinstein's at Loew's Regency, April 24, 2012
But what's on public display at Feinstein's at Loew's Regency, through May 5, is an astonishing display of artistry and, yes, durability. When Maye takes the stage to a frantic arrangement of "Make Your Own Kind of Music" -- yes, that "Make Your Own Kind of Music"! -- she somehow turns a bubblegum teenybopper tune into a jazz barnstormer (ingeniously coupled with Vincent Youman's "Without a Song" -- as Charles Busch once remarked to Maye, "You sure love a good medley!") that sizzles and pops with her rafter-shaking vocals, Billy Stritch's dextrous piano accompaniment, Tom Hubbard's nimble bass, and most especially, Jim Eckloff's firecracker drumming. Incidentally, Maye first recorded "Make Your Own Kind of Music" for her modestly-titled 1970 RCA album, Girl Singer, in a more-or-less straightforward arrangement that closely mirrored the Mama Cass hit. It would have been fairly easy and less taxing for Maye to simply trot out her old charts and do the song "straight." It's a credit to her always-forward thinking mind and ethos that she can take material she's been doing for years, and still find new ways to interpret and arrange it.
Billed as "The Happiest Sound in Town" (after the title track to another RCA album -- one with the succinct, now-famous liner blurb by Johnny Carson: "Let's call her Super Singer!"), Maye's current repertoire is understandably heavy on the "up" tunes. From the beginning of her recording career, Maye's warmth, good humor and powerful pipes made her the natural choice to debut such flag-waving fare as "Cabaret" (the first ever recording of that song, released before the show's Broadway opening, and certainly long before the movie version; "And she knows it, too," Marilyn will quip wryly) and "Step to the Rear" (from How Now, Dow Jones, and then later turned into a lucrative jingle for Lincoln-Mercury). At Feinstein's, Maye includes some fan favorites from those glory days of Broadway and film themes, such as "You're Gonna Hear from Me" from the Natalie Wood/Robert Redford film, Inside Daisy Clover (1965); and "Golden Rainbow," from Steve and Eydie's Broadway vehicle of the same name. The only unfortunate casualty of all of this hale and hearty happiness are the blues and ballads that Maye can make such a meal of. Anyone who has heard Maye vamp her way through "Just for a Thrill" or "Blues in the Night," or turn "Something Cool" and "Guess Who I Saw Today" into harrowing, one-woman mini-dramas, can't help but wish that she could have included more of that type of material in the current show.
So when Maye's creamy tones envelop one of the few ballads in the program, Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner's magnificently romantic "Too Late Now" (her 1966 recording of which is ensconced at the Smithsonian in their collection of definitive recordings of the Great American Songbook), it's like milk and honey bathing your ears. And when she flips the coin on that relationship, with the quintessential late 1950's cabaret downer, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," Maye practically gives a master class in the art of torch singing.
Marilyn Maye, circa late 1960's
But at this stage in the game, one can't blame Marilyn Maye for being, well, happy. She looks and sounds magnificent, with little sign of slowing down, let alone stopping. And when the marvelous Marilyn Maye executes her awe-inspiring high kicks during her signature finale, Jerry Herman's "It's Today" from Mame, it's difficult to argue with the notion that you are, indeed, part of the happiest sound in town.