Two polar opposites whose only common ground is talent, astute musical perfectionism and the ability to send their listeners away happy, Sandy Stewart and Marilyn Maye are, ironically, appearing on separate cabaret stages this week. Talk about an abundance of riches.
At the Oak Room of the Algonquin, Ms. Stewart, a veteran of the Benny Goodman band and a regular on the old Perry Como television show, is sharing the bill with her son Bill Charlap, on the short list of the great jazz pianists of today. Performing exquisite standards and classic show tunes like tone poems, they stand out in a world of creepy cabaret cacophony like gentle harp strings in an island breeze. It is difficult to explain what they do. You just have to experience it, by listening carefully. What you feel and hear transforms their songs with thoughtful moment-to-moment observations about life and love and longevity. I don’t know what their family reunions are like, but this is mother-son respect and mutual admiration unlike anything I have known before. He pauses when she breathes, underscores her moods with the most subtle of thrills, and fills in passages between her phrases with chords sublime enough to make you swoon. I was enraptured. Unassuming and refreshingly without ego, she glides through the wistful melancholy of “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You” and Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners” without raising her voice above a whisper, while his cadenzas serve as love letters to her singing. Gently moving from word to word on “Where or When,” she keeps the crowd so hypnotized that a waiter’s fork against a porcelain bowl sounds like an atom bomb.
Subtle, introspective and understated are words most often used to describe Ms. Stewart, because without reaching for pyrotechnic effects, she holds her listeners enthralled in silence, transfixed by the spell she casts. Whether it’s the sadness of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” or the gorgeous search for lasting talismans of the heart in the Dietz-Schwartz classic “Something to Remember You By,” each selection exudes a style and creates a mood. There’s always a section in each of her shows where she turns the stage over to her son. On this occasion, he treated Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love” as a jolly romp and “Cabin in the Sky” at a brisker tempo than usual, his fingers literally sliding over the keys like he was stroking a Persian cat. No big blast-off finale I call “going for the money,” but just “When You Wish Upon a Star,” with Sandy’s voice straight out of a dream and Bill’s piano accompaniment, so idyllic you want to move in a sleep in his chords. This kind of artistry doesn’t come around often, but when it does the effort to get there is worth it. Sandy Stewart and Bill Charlap are not out to prove anything. They’re just sharing. The nightly crowds at the Oak Room are the lucky recipients of all that bounty. Are we lucky, or what?
Bouncy, bubbly, buoyant Marilyn Maye uses different tactics in her no-fail strategy to land her fans squarely in her lap at Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency, but they always work. Celebrating composer Jerry Herman’s 80th birthday year, she’s polished off many of the gems from Mame, Mack and Mabel and Hello, Dolly!, roasting even the most familiar chestnuts with her own inextinguishable flame. From the passion and power of “If He Walked Into My Life Today” from Mame, to the unrequited adoration for an imperfect lover in “He Won’t Send Roses” from Mack and Mabel, she picks songs that fit not only the moxie of Jerry Herman’s most popular heroines, Mame Dennis, Dolly Levi and Mabel Normand, but herself too. When she belts out “Before the Parade Passes By,” she’s really singing about Marilyn Maye. When asked about her career, Ginger Rogers was once quoted as saying, “The most important thing in anyone’s life is to be giving something—the quality I can give is fun, joy, and happiness.” Ms. Maye seems to subscribe to the same philosophy. One thing you can always count on is joy. In a big show of optimism, she calls this show “The Best of Times Is Now!” from the rousing, banner-raising march in La Cage aux Folles. I’ve got news. The best of times is most definitely not now. But her humor and positive energy and professional musical savvy is so infectious, she makes you believe it.
“Wow, oh, wow, fellas … Look at the old girl now fellas,” sings this knockout show business octogenarian, echoing Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand and Louis Armstrong. We’re looking. And we like what we see. Like Mame, she came, she saw, she conquered and absolutely nothing is the same.