Mercer the Maye Way
The Metropolitan Room
After a 16-year hiatus, marvelous singer Marilyn Maye made a New York comeback in 2006, and it’s been full steam ahead ever since. Back at the Metropolitan Room through June 21, celebrating the great lyricist Johnny Mercer, she’s a valid one-woman reason to make a trip to New York. In this staggering show, she serves 35 Mercer tunes, spiced up with her own brand of Tabasco, and punches them out of the ring faster than Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling.
With Mercer, forming a song list can be a daunting task, so the inevitable always happens: lots of medleys. Not my favorite gimmick, but with M.M., a Rubik’s Cube of lyrics blends seamlessly. “Too Marvelous for Words” moves with natural grace into “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” as the words “oh, baby look at you now” bleed into “jeepers creepers, where’d you get those peepers” with such ease that I almost forgot Louis Armstrong introduced it on film singing it to a horse. It’s always a treat to hear the oomph she uses to jazz up a song. She breaks up phrases and stanzas until they sound like lines of poetry, the way Sylvia Syms once did. In fact, she reminds me of a more bombastic Sylvia. It’s a rare talent in short supply these days. Even overly familiar ballads like “Moon River” and “Laura” achieve a delicate balance, and obscure tunes like “Hit the Road to Dreamland” (crooned by Betty Hutton in Star Spangled Rhythm) and “If I Had My Druthers” (from Li’l Abner) make you wonder where they’ve been hiding all your life. Even when she totally fucked up one of my favorite songs, the fabulous “Midnight Sun,” it was O.K. because she always crawls out of avalanches with her dignity intact.
Maybe it’s the Mercer material, but she’s in better voice than ever. Building to a dramatic close on the Mercer–Harold Arlen masterpiece “Out of This World,” she bends notes and captivates the soul. “One for My Baby,” a 4 a.m. boozer sung to a bartender and rarely sung by a woman, becomes a navy blue lament by the same nostalgic been-around barfly who sang “Something Cool.” Mercer the Maye way is not to be missed. It’s a master class in singing conducted by a polished pro who majored in “unforgettable.”