“The Incomparable Hildegarde” spent 70 years as a showbiz headliner. Andrea Marcovicci marks her 20th anniversary at the Algonquin’s Oak Room with a salute to the now-forgotten chanteuse with the “Continental, not-quite-French, Midwestern accent.” As singer, actor and storyteller, Marcovicci delivers a fine show with songs taken from the nostalgia songbag.
A country girl from Wisconsin, Hildegarde Lauretta Sell (1906-2005) became the first of the one-name headliners when her moniker was shortened by vaudeville booker Gus Edwards, of “School Days” fame. The pert songstress early on learned it was the eccentricities that got you noticed; hence her trademark of playing the piano while wearing long white gloves. Fabulous clothes, fabulous lighting, an all-around air of kitsch; it’s no wonder Liberace boasted he molded himself on her act.
The singer found a manager-promoter-life partner in sometime-songwriter Anna Sosenko. A minor flirtation with King Gustav of Sweden in a Paris cabaret became an international affair, thanks to Sosenko’s cables to the press, and Hildegarde was truly launched. Nightclubs, recordings and radio were her metier, with her success peaking around WWII. From there it was a long slide into the twilight, with cabaret acts continuing until she was in her 90s.
The last time this reviewer saw Hildegarde — in fact the only time — was when she was singing “Who’s That Woman?” in a cheesy 1973 summer stock package of “Follies.” By that point, Hildegarde was not incomparable but unfathomable.
Marcovicci provides great entertainment, backed by longtime musical director Shelly Markham and Jered Egan on bass. Rather than trying to imitate her subject, she brings her own personality to most of the show, with just enough of the moves to give us a sense of the original.
This is a warm, friendly and funny act. Still, Marcovicci is somewhat hamstrung by the repertoire. She does a nifty job with “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup” — Sosenko’s tale of an American soldier wooing a French mademoiselle — bringing out more humor and charm than one might suppose is in the lyric. And Kern & Hammerstein’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” for which Marcovicci dons Hildegarde’s white gloves, is given a dramatic rendition that is the finest of the night.
Otherwise, the cabaret star continually interrupts her show to sing the so-so songs of Hildegarde when we’d much rather hear Marcovicci sing challenging material. “I’m Feeling Like a Million” makes us want to go right out and spend another evening with Marcovicci, although not necessarily with Hildegarde.