Sophisticated Lady: The Sultry Yanna Avis Is No Innocent Ingénue

At new late-night series, a bona fide chanteuse holds forth

Yanna Avis holds forth. (Stephen Sorokoff)

Yanna Avis sings. (Stephen Sorokoff)

New York used to be a swinging town after dark. Now it’s just lonely. After dessert is served, the cafes close. After the boring, obligatory standing ovations that end every show in town whether it’s any good or not, the theaters empty and the audience heads home. Back in the day, you could head for a midnight show at any nightclub in Midtown. Now everyone is in bed by 11, watching the news and setting the alarm. New York gets more like L.A. every day, where, as the great Shirley Booth used to say, “No matter how boring it gets during the day … there sure ain’t nothin’ to do at night.”

Good news! The swanky Café Carlyle, a k a “Bobby Short’s Room,” has launched a new late-night music show on Thursday and Friday nights, bringing excitement and joy to People Who Know Things, like jazz and show tunes and the restorative value of the time-honored nightcap. Things usually get started about 10:45, and it’s green lights ahead by 11. Last week, the svelte, undulating body and warm dulcimer larynx of Yanna Avis were the lure. She repeats the magic Thursday the 16th and Friday the 17th. Your lids might get heavy just taking in her curves and listening to her sultry voice, but you won’t fall asleep. She’s from Paris, so like any bona fide chanteuse, she sells “l’amour” in at least seven languages. And she’s the widow of rent-a-car czar Warren Avis, so she’s never late for work. You be on time, too. You don’t want to miss a thing.

The show is called In Love With Love, and when this cosmopolitan femme fatale climbs on top of the grand piano in a gown so tight it looks sprayed on, crooning seductive songs by Kurt Weill, Cole Porter, Michel Legrand, Cy Coleman and others, you know she’s not kidding around. Singing Frederick Hollander’s “Illusions,” which Marlene Dietrich introduced in the film A Foreign Affair, she brings back the essence of those louche Berlin cabaret cellars where drinks were delivered by girls on horseback. “Want to buy some illusions?” she sings in a throaty whisper, and brother, you better have your credit card handy, because she’s not giving anything away. On “Big Spender,” she sells sex with a wicked sense of humor. Acting as a tour guide through Paris, where, Oscar Wilde said, “good Americans go to die,” her romantic French medley of “Ca C’est l’Amour,” “C’est Magnifique” and “C’est Si Bon” is formidable.

Nobody else is carrying on the European tradition quite so well, and her fans find it all charming as hell. No phony intensity. No innocent ingénue. And no music hall coquette. She teases sex like Dietrich, with a wicked sense of humor. She’s sharp and soigné as Hildegard Knef. And sometimes she touches the heart like Piaf. Ms. Avis has a raw, unrefined talent, the determination to succeed against the odds (what kind of future is there in today’s ragamuffin cabaret world for a girl with curves, warm as cashmere, who sings immortal lyrics like “Ich Hab’Noch Einen Koffer in Berlin,” accompanied by an accordion?) and an admirable resolve to make time stand still.

rreed@observer.com