Marilyn Maye stars in Highlights, conducted by Billy Stritch, at Feinstein's/54 Below.
Marilyn Maye stars in Highlights, conducted by Billy Stritch, at Feinstein's/54 Below.
(© Nella Vera)

Marilyn Maye is show business personified. The 88-year-old chanteuse has been performing around the country for 70 years, and that includes 76 appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Her latest gig at Feinstein's/54 Below proves that she's still one of the most exciting acts in cabaret.

She marches onstage to the sound of Charles Strouse's "Got a Lot o' Living to Do." This melds seamlessly into Lerner and Loewe's "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face" and then a snazzy up-tempo rendition of "On the Street Where You Live." Maye really swings it, ending on a high note that rings out over the dining room. "Thank you," she silently mouths to the heavens.

Maye's career stretches back to radio in the Midwest. She recalls working as a singer in Louisville when the station switched over to country in the late '40s, using this story as an excuse to croon a delightfully twangy version of Hank Williams' "Cheatin' Heart." More of a jazz singer (she can't help but improvise on her runs), she obviously didn't stay in that job. It's the first of many personal and professional twists she shares over the course of the evening.

The aptly named show recounts highlights from Maye's life: the good, the bad, and the boozy. Remarkably, she discusses no fewer than three marriages without ever succumbing to maudlin sentimentality. Maye dislikes self-pity in cabaret, and that turns out to be quite refreshing.

Instead, a sunny optimism pervades her renditions of Mann and Weill's "Make Your Own Kind of Music" and "This Could Be the Start of Something Big" (which she uses to discuss her time with its composer, Steve Allen). Her timeless version of Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret" is brassy and sassy, exactly what you want from that song.

Maye's voice has developed a smoky quality that colors every note without detracting from pitch or tone. Everything is delivered with perfect intonation and coquettish attitude. She wraps up a Fats Waller medley with a hot version of "Honeysuckle Rose." Maye really knows how to inject sex into a song.

Marilyn Maye sings in Highlights at Feinstein's/54 Below.
Marilyn Maye sings in Highlights at Feinstein's/54 Below.
(© Nella Vera)

Her standing in the cabaret world is further evidenced by the artists with whom she surrounds herself: pianist and conductor Billy Stritch, bassist Tom Hubbard, and drummer Ray Marchica. These guys are the best of the best. Few sounds are more enticing than Hubbard's pizzicati or Marchica's brush work. Stritch scats with Maye during her songs and vamps on the ivories as she tells her stories. He's the Ed McMahon to her Johnny.

The two performers maintain fluidity throughout the set, injecting little stories into musical interludes and accenting anecdotes with a few bars of a song. Maye's version of Carolyn Leigh and Elmer Bernstein's "Step to the Rear" is particularly delightful, especially when she trots out the alternate lyrics that were used in commercials for Lincoln-Mercury. Even though record sales were modest, she boasts, "We sold a million cars with that number."

Maye is very much a working artist, persisting through good times and bad times, singing all the way. "This is all we know how to do," she says. Appropriately, she closes the evening with a thrilling rendition of "I'm Still Here" from Stephen Sondheim's Follies. We hope she keeps singing it for a long time.