Sexually active men may live longer. But talented, indefatigable, crowd-pleasing divas sing longer. Marilyn Maye, 83, is making every minute count. One of her favorite lines is “I’m singing as fast as I can.” And her tumultuous legion of fans is always there, applauding every lyric. On the packed opening night of her new show at Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency, they made more noise than the traffic outside the glass windows on Park Avenue.
The forceful, ebullient song stylist is not only singing faster, she’s singing better. All of those critically praised record albums and legendary appearances on the old Johnny Carson show that made her a household name have paid off. Time and the weather (not to mention several husbands and a few heated love affairs) may have filed an occasional rough edge on her voice, but she’s forgotten nothing. The new show, called “Maye in May” (because it’s spring and you gotta have a gimmick), goes soft on romance in songs aimed at youth (“Young at Heart,” “You Make Me Feel So Young”), happiness (“That Face,” “Your Smiling Face,” “I Love to See You Smile”) and optimism (“It Might as Well Be Spring”), with smiles as wide as buttercups. Her style is invigoratingly schematic, but–milking four syllables out of words with only two, or reaching for one high note in the middle of a five-bar chorus–it all sounds natural and straight from the heart. Her excellent trio (Tedd Firth on piano, with bassist Tom Hubbard and drummer Jim Eklof) provides both a cushion for her to lean on and a sense of humor (while she pauses on the word “China” in a Randy Newman song, Mr. Firth makes sampan sounds on the keyboard). It’s an eclectic show, with something for everybody. A My Fair Lady medley unleashes the most swinging version of “On the Street Where You Live” I’ve ever heard, replete with a scat chorus Ella Fitzgerald would admire. “Butter Outta Cream,” from the Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman score of the excellent but underpraised show Catch Me If You Can, is cleverness renewed. Peter Allen’s “Everything Old Is New Again” takes on new meaning. The lyrics “Don’t throw your past away/You’re gonna need it some rainy day” never seemed truer. From “Blues in the Night” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” with Mr. Firth swinging away in full chords, to a tender reading of “My Ideal,” written for Margaret Whiting by her songwriting father, Richard, she really gives you all she’s got. You get your money’s worth.
Picking up some of the slack since the departure of Mabel Mercer and the beloved Sylvia Syms, cabaret royalty of yesteryear, Ms. Maye has also reached the age when so many lyrics sometimes lodge in her brain and she beckons for some prompting–from Mr. Firth, or even her fans. They know most of her songs by heart, and while making up for lost time, she seems anxious to sing them all. This is a good thing. She honors the core of every song, emphasizing fun. It rubs off. What comes through is a sunny desire to make everybody happy. She could write a book about how to work a room and play an audience like a deck of cards. Despite her new status as a cabaret queen, there’s nothing regal or imperial about her, and despite occasional gymnastics (especially on the thrilling up-tempo Fats Waller material), she keeps things light, breezy and wrinkle-free. Even in the drama of Sondheim’s survival anthem “I’m Still Here,” she inserts her own brand of humor, singing “I’ve been through Barbra Streisand … and I’m here.” She can call her show “Maye in May” if she wants, but she’s welcome any time of the year, with open arms.