Concertgoers came to the big tent at Crooners in Fridley on a chilly, windy Wednesday night sporting quilted coats, stocking caps, blankets and COVID masks. The star they came to see, cabaret queen Marilyn Maye, was bathed in bling: rhinestone bracelets and sparkling earrings, black sequined pants, a shimmering gold jacket and, naturally, a sequined mask.
Never at a loss for words, Maye unleashed her wit in a sung introduction to her opening number, "It's a Most Unusual Day."
"This afternoon it rained," she cooed. "It's lovely now … kind of."
The crowd chuckled.
The wind slapped the sides of Crooners' big concert tent like hockey pucks smacking off a goalie's stick. But Maye never missed a beat.
"This is a new experience," she declared after the first tune in the heated big top with nearly 100 people.
"The tightrope act was going to be so good," she continued with mock sadness. Pianist Billy Stritch responded with a little circus music that had the crowd guffawing.
An irresistible mix of old-school shtick and classic interpretive singing, the bejeweled, becoiffed and beguiling Maye thrilled the socially distanced, bundled-up crowd for nearly 90 minutes at the opening of her five-night stand that continues through Sunday.
Like fine wine and Tony Bennett, Maye not only seems to get better with age, but audiences seem to appreciate her specialness even more. Bennett, the 94-year-old king of croon, radiates a gracious, classy charm and joie de vivre that compensate for the brevity of his performances. Maye, the 92-year-old queen of cabaret, fills the room with her vivacious personality, incomparable energy and uncanny sense of timeless showbiz.
The ultimate entertainer, she has more spot-on quips than a "Saturday Night Live" Weekend Update, and shows a more balanced mastery of belting and balladry than some current jazz singers dominating the DownBeat polls. Whether delivering hilarious zingers or emotive lyrics, her timing on Wednesday was impeccable.
The Wichita-born singer has been entertaining with panache since she had a radio show in Des Moines as a teenager. Discovered in a Kansas City club by Steve Allen, she was a finalist for the Grammy for best new artist in 1966 with Sonny & Cher, the Byrds and Herman's Hermits (Tom Jones won). Maye ended up with a nice consolation prize — a record 76 appearances with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show."
About a decade ago, Maye began to enjoy a resurgence in the New York cabaret scene. Last year, she did three triumphant stints at Crooners and appeared for a 62nd consecutive year at Lake Okoboji in Iowa. During this year's pandemic, Maye had only one brief engagement before Crooners.
On Wednesday, she sometimes had to ask Stritch, her pianist on and off for 40 years, what song was next. Her set was filled with all kinds of emotions, big endings, comically retooled lyrics and themed medleys (the one with "Over the Rainbow" and "Rainbow Connection" was a winner). She demonstrated rhythmic flair and interpretive nuance. She made standards swing, got down with the blues and soothed with ballads. And she killed with unscripted one-liners and leg kicks like a Rockette emeritus.
No wonder she's still billed, like her 1965 debut announced, as the Marvelous Marilyn Maye.