My Night With Maude

c rexmaude maggart 2007 p My Night With MaudeMaude Maggart
THE OAK ROOM AT THE ALGONQUIN

The first time I saw baby-faced singer Maude Maggart in a New York club, she reminded me of one of those turn-of-the-century milkmaids you see in antique shops on lavender-colored boxes of Louis Sherry bonbons. She wore granny gowns and sang dated tunes in a colorless voice as sweet as boysenberry syrup. She’s much better now, but she still has a lot to learn, and I’ve got a big question to ask. Mystery of the spheres: How does a sapling like this get a six-week engagement at the Algonquin’s august Oak Room when far superior performers can’t even get six days? Somebody has a lot of explaining to do.

All of which might mistakenly sound like I’m complaining. Not true. Rest assured, she’s pleasant, like a tween who wins on American Idol. She’s improved since the last time out, and so has some of her repertoire. She’s discovered a new power that wasn’t there before, and she’s doing less Tweety Pie chirping while exploring the warm vibrato in her lower register more. She’s tastefully gowned with a grown-up off-the-shoulder black velvet bodice. But her hair is still combed back and falling down below her shoulders in a long, straight ponytail. She’s Margaret O’Brien with cleavage.

Everything about this new show is a study in contrasts and contradictions. One minute she’s singing Sondheim. The next minute she’s into Dolly Parton. As a fledgling with talent, she lacks direction and focus, and she’s living proof that it’s not enough to love every kind of song ever written. I like eclectic, but any show that ranges from George and Ira Gershwin’s torchy “The Man I Love,” which she turns into a youthful tone poem by a longing daydreamer, to a childlike rumination like “My Grandmother’s Love Letters,” about things found in an attic trunk—well, you can hardly call the repertoire selective. Too many time-wasters to suit me.

And too much candid patter the audience didn’t quite fathom, about a childhood moving back and forth between two divorced parents on opposite coasts who met in the cast of Applause; a grandmother who danced in George White’s Scandals; and a grandfather who played reeds with the Harry James band. Still, I often find myself asking, “Why don’t these young ladies just sing pretty songs, simply and straight from the heart?” And for the most part that’s exactly what she does. Her deeply felt arrangement of “Be a Child” by the underrated genius Alec Wilder, with gorgeous phrases by cellist Yair Evnine, is a highlight. I give her high marks for even knowing who Alec Wilder is. (I’d love to hear what she does with his “Blackberry Winter.”) Her rueful approach to “Our Love Is Here to Stay” was full of measured emotion, treating Ira Gershwin’s lyrics as a eulogy for his brother George. Finally, I was surprised and delighted when she chose Irving Berlin’s seldom-heard “Moonshine Lullaby,” the rarest song from the fertile score of Annie Get Your Gun, as her encore. She has taste.

Maude Maggart has been listening, stretching and growing as an artist. As she examines the contours of her songs, she transports herself into a dreamlike state—mesmerizing but too often punctuated by girlish giggles. She’s hard to peg. She’s too cool and self-assured to be labeled a conventional pop star like her sister, Fiona Apple, but not sophisticated or worldly enough to be crowned a cabaret diva in the tradition of Mabel Mercer and Julie Wilson. I think she has the goods to dazzle, but for now, she only manages a small glow.

rreed@observer.com