Little Voice, Big Yawn: Maude Maggart at the Oak Room

The cabaret world is full of puzzles. The current one is Maude Maggart, the newest, tiniest and most overpraised porcelain doll in the overcrowded toy shop; she is now enjoying a four-week run in the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel at a time when better singers and more deserving talents can’t even get a one-night stand. She sounds like Little Lulu and looks like Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis on Halloween night wearing her big sister’s gown with her hair piled on top of her head like a Gibson Girl.

In a perfect example of why cabaret acts should stop pretending to be about something, using musical themes and pointless titles to no useful purpose, this one is called “Everybody’s Doin’ It.” The title refers to an Irving Berlin song about a dance craze that dates back a hundred years ago, but it is never clear just what it is that everybody’s doin’ here except that during the act, nobody does it again. Accompanied by John Boswell on piano, and with a voice that can’t be heard above the rattle of supper club flatware, accentuated by a whispered vibrato no more forceful than a nervous tremor, Ms. Maggart simply uses the title as a springboard to explore songs she likes, with no coherent point of view. Her chatter provides no informal keys to who she is or why we would want to know her better. One minute she shares the dreams women harbor through the ages (“I Wished on the Moon” by Dorothy Parker), and then she mind-bogglingly compares Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra to Susan B. Anthony to show what the New Woman did to realize those dreams. Very few of the songs she chooses really illustrate anything she’s talking about. Blending Cole Porter’s darkly sophisticated “Down in the Depths of the 90th Floor” into a medley with “The Best Things in Life Are Free” and “The Lady Is a Tramp” is a real head-scratcher. In the middle of the act, she discards the themes of women and dreams and prattles on about Sinatra, going so far as to sing Rod McKuen’s lugubrious “A Man Alone.” When I think of (or look at) Maude Maggart, a cream puff in a red dress, I do not see a man alone.

Following the affirmative romantic self-assuredness of “Why Did I Choose You?” with a pop tune called “I’m Not the Star You Thought I’d Be” makes no sense at all. Her patter is neither funny nor moving. Most of the time the act is so confused and rambling that you wonder if she knows what she’s talking about at all. 

In all fairness, I must admit she has subtlety, and she wisely refrains from show-off pyrotechnics her limited vocal range can’t pull off anyway. But too much restraint can be a yawn. Musically, no notes are ever held long enough for dramatic impact. There is no shimmer in her upper register, no jazz-inflected phrasing, no embellishment of certain lines for individual flavor or sensibility. What I like about her is her taste, so you can count on a few pleasant surprises, like “I Wish It So” from Marc Blitzstein’s gorgeous score for Juno (the only other singer who transposed it for a club act was Rosemary Clooney) and Sondheim’s seldom-heard “More” from the film Dick Tracy. Sadly, she approaches songs in a mélange of styles yet always manages to make them sound the same. 

If you’re baffled but still curious to hear what this diminutive diva sounds like, check it out: In an old MGM musical called A Date With Judy, there’s an embarrassing scene in which a young, beautiful and snooty Elizabeth Taylor tries to teach Jane Powell, of all people, how to sing “It’s a Most Unusual Day” at the high-school prom. With a wobbly soprano having more vibrato than Eartha Kitt, she sounds exactly like Maude Maggart does now. Elizabeth was too smart to ever embark on a singing career. Ms. Maggart just keeps warbling. She’s too twee to tweet.

  Little Voice, Big Yawn: Maude Maggart at the Oak Room