Cabaret star Steve Ross has been called suave, debonair, and sophisticated. All true. These attributes, however, suggest a certain brittle quality. In his current act at the FireBird Café, Love and Laughter: Part I, Ross puts a comic crack in that image to project something unexpected: he's actually adorable.

This performer has always had a sense of humor, but it has usually been expressed through the urbane wit of the likes of Noël Coward and Cole Porter. In this new show, Ross has uncovered some material that is wonderfully goofy. More to the point, he puts these songs over with such an impish delight that his own crisp edges are softened and, by way of contrast, his love songs seem even more deeply felt.

So there we are, settling in at the FireBird to hear Steve Ross do what Steve Ross does best--i.e., to offer some of the great standards of our time with elegant arrangements and stylish, intelligent interpretations of the lyrics. Shortly into the act, however, he suddenly starts singing about the sex life of a dolphin! We look at each other. What is this? With each new verse, the lyrics get wackier, bawdier, and funnier. The room is roaring, and so are we. Ross's eyes are sparkling. The song--"The Dolphin," by Anne Croswell and Lee Pockriss--is from a revue titled X-Rated Mother Nature. Soon thereafter, Ross comes up with more surprises: the darkly comic "Teeny Tiny Lady" by Marshall Barer and David Ross; and a dust-covered ditty from 1930, "Hungry Women," by Ager and Yellen.

The comedy numbers in Ross' show are as much about love as the rest of the songs he has programmed; they simply approach the subject in a far less reverential fashion. When Ross turns serious, however, he sings with real feeling. His attention to lyrics brings him--and the audience--closer to the subtext of each song. His moody, mournful version of "One For My Baby" by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen says volumes about "that long, long road" he'll have to travel alone; his rendition of this classic number is second to none, and that includes the classic version by a pretty good saloon singer named Sinatra. By the same token, Ross can bring a simple purity to a new song like Craig Carnelia's "Look In My Eyes" and make it work. This is a notable case of Ross getting past the image of a sophisticated purveyor of museum music.

Steve Ross doesn't have a pretty voice; one doesn't come to his shows for bell tones, but rather for bellwether interpretations. When he sings Cole Porter's "All Through the Night," he brings a passion to the ballad that has nothing to do with vocal prowess and everything to do with emotional connection. The same is true of his lush, romantic rendering of "My Shining Hour" by Mercer and Arlen. The show, therefore, fulfills the promise of its title. We're looking forward to Love and Laughter: Part II.

It seems that, every time we see a Steve Ross show, we are won over again. And we obviously aren't the only ones; Ross is at the FireBird Café for an extended run, through June 3.