Andrea Marcovicci, who opened her 21st season at the Algonquin Oak Room on Tuesday with a new Rodgers and Hart retrospective, is a rare kind of storyteller with a passion for song. She invades an old warhorse like “Where or When” with a searching heart that makes it appear like you’re hearing it for the first time. Marian Seldes presented the Mabel Mercer Award to the stately thrush at Monday’s opening gala of the four-day 18th annual Cabaret Convention.
In a silvery-gray gown, heightened by a dazzling diamond necklace and earrings (there was a jewelry store guard named Ivan in the wings), Marcovicci is the personification of the latenight song siren. In the great tradition of Gotham nightlife, she possesses the wisdom of Mercer, the sophistication of Hildegaard and the extravagance of Kay Thompson.
Marcovicci protege Maude Maggart confessed her gushing adoration for her mentor, adding the musical postscript “Nobody Does It Better.” Maggart has learned a great deal from the Marcovicci’s emotive skills, and it was fully realized in her pointed rendering of the Carly Simon lyric.
Steve Ross defined romanticism with a 75-year-old ballad “Don’t Blame Me” by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields. Jeff Harnar offered a capsule recall of the bountiful musical season on Broadway in 1959, with an adventurous interlocking medley of show tunes fused into an intense and witty maze as if they might have been crafted by Stephen Sondheim. The plucky songstress from San Francisco, Paula West, rendered an intense account of “Nature Boy.”
A real surprise was Catherine Russell who, with “Darn That Dream,” avoided embroidery by revealing the purity of Jimmy Van Heusen’s lyric and the melodic grace of Eddie de Lange’s infectious tune. For a show-stopping postscript, Russell tackled the amusing double entendres of Andy Razaf’s salty blues, “Kitchen Man.”
The new kid on the block is Tony Desare, who balances a bright and keenly structured jazz piano with an amiable vocal approach. “Just in Time” and “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love” defined that happy fusion of Broadway, jazz and cabaret. The concert also marked the Lincoln Center debut of 17-year-old Judy Butterfield, who sang “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” which served to note that the Great American Songbook is in safe hands.