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Monday, 04 August 2014 12:39

Billy Stritch and Marilyn Maye score homers in a cabaret double header

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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Billy Stritch and Marilyn Maye score homers in a cabaret double header

When does a three-hour cabaret evening feel too short? Why, when it stars Billy Stritch and Marilyn Maye, of course.

As part of the St. Louis Cabaret Festival, The Cabaret Project—a non-profit dedicated to promoting, developing, and sustaining cabaret in St. Louis—presented a dynamite double bill on Friday, August 1st: Mr. Stritch's Cy Coleman tribute and Ms. Maye's high-energy tribute to life, love, and sad saloon songs.

Full disclosure: I'm a member of the board of The Cabaret Project. With an evening of this quality, though, that's pretty much beside the point.

Mr. Stritch calls his show "I've Got Your Number: the Jazz of Cy Coleman," and, in fact, his set list relied as heavily on Coleman's stand-alone songs as it did on numbers from his Broadway shows. Examples of the former included "Witchcraft" and the ballad "It Amazes Me" (which Mr. Stritch singled out as one of his favorites). From the Broadway stage, we had familiar hits like "The Other Side of the Tracks" and "I've Got Your Number" (both from "Little Me"), as well as obscure goodies like "I'm Watching You" from "Nothing But the Truth," a show that died aborning. The songs Coleman wrote to lyrics by Carolyn Leigh—regarded by many as his best creative partner—were heavily favored.

It was a nicely balanced show, and performed in the dynamic, breezy, jazzy style that has made Mr. Stritch one of the most admired singer/songwriters on the cabaret and jazz scenes. He's also an impressive pianist, throwing off complex jazz riffs with deceptive ease and trading licks with drummer Jim Eklof and bassist Gerald Spaits, who backed up both him and Ms. Maye. They've both played with Mr. Stritch and Ms. Maye for many years, as their easy camaraderie made apparent.

It was, in short, a tribute to one of America's most versatile songwriters that was as entertaining as it was educational.

After intermission, the stage and the audience belonged entirely to cabaret and supper club legend Marilyn Maye who, at the ripe young age of 86, can still tell a joke, belt the blues, and croon a ballad with the best of them—all with a charm and energy that would be the envy of someone half her age.

From the moment she hit the stage—with an ingenious medley of "Rainbow" songs—until she exited almost ninety minutes later with an exuberant reading of Jerry Herman’s “It’s Today” (apparently her signature encore these days), Ms. Maye had the crowd at the Sheldon in the palm of her hand. As I noted in my review of her 2007 appearance at the now-defunct Cabaret at Savor, her boundless energy and obvious delight in her material, in combination with her cheerful, off-the-cuff repartee, inevitably establish an immediate bond with those of us on the other side of the spotlight.

Elaborate and intelligently assembled medleys seem to be the backbone of Ms. Maye's act these days. She and Mr. Stritch, her long-time music director, put together some doozies for this show, including a nine-song set based on the weepy ballads that, according to Ms. Maye, are typical of what you get when you open a show up for requests. Starting with Barry Manilow's "Paradise Café" and winding up with Arlen and Mercer's world-weary classic "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)," it was a bravura survey of some of the most notable "alcohol and lost love" songs from the Great American Songbook.

Mr. Stritch did the keyboard honors and joined Ms. Maye on some powerful jazz vocals. At one point Ted Firth (Ms. Maye's "other" music director) took over at the keyboard for a number that wound up with him and Mr. Stritch playing four-handed piano, to the delight of the audience.

For jazz and cabaret lovers, it just doesn't get much better than that.

The St. Louis Cabaret Festival concluded on Saturday, August 2nd, with a showcase the featuring 32 singers from the St. Louis Cabaret Conference, a professional training program that runs concurrently with the festival. For more information on The Cabaret Project, visit the web site.

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