Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Maude Maggart Enchants at the Oak Room

Posted April 15, 2008 on CabaretExchange.com

There is something magical about lullabies; there is a naivete, a vulnerability almost, about them. Maude Maggart exhibits these charms, probably in her everyday life, but especially in her cabaret shows at the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel.

This setting, which feels like it’s been preserved in exactly the same state since its heyday in the 1940s, is the perfect fit for Ms. Maggart who, herself, seems of a different era. In her casual chatter, she uses phrases such as "I suppose" and accents her songs with balletic gestures of her arms and hands. She moves gracefully and has the mysterious enchantment of Ava Gardner or Rita Hayworth, complete with the low cut black dress and wavy long hair swept over one shoulder.

Her pitch-perfect voice is also reminiscent of the bygone jazz days, with a resonance that can almost be felt in the wood-paneled Oak Room. She has a bright and youthful vibrato that quivers as much as the cello accompanying her and calls to mind the voices of the heroines on classic Disney movies. Ms. Maggart has beautiful enunciation, making every word heard without putting any effort into it, and a genuine connection with the audience that is riveting. She makes eye contact with each person, and even goes so far as to walk up to the tables and take people’s hands. This approach could be discomforting, but Ms. Maggart does it with such an unassuming innocence that, instead, it is heart-warming.

Appropriately, her show at the Oak Room (which continues until May 10th) is titled "Speaking of Dreams", and Ms. Maggart does just that. Last Wednesday night, she hypothesized about the reason that love and dreams are so often connected in songs (suggesting that both can give euphoria and misery almost simultaneously). She also explored her idea of "healthy lullabies" and fairy tales, as in not the kind that imply to young girls that men will only kiss them when they’re half-dead (a la Sleeping Beauty or Snow White). Her idea of a Healthy Lullaby? "When You Wish Upon A Star" from Pinocchio, which, John Boswell, her highly favored pianist, led her straight into following her dissertation-of-sorts.

Although it was highly entertaining to listen to her conjecture on dreams and share witty stories from her past, it is perhaps more important, being that she is a singer, that she also sang of dreams. Every song was tied in to the theme of dreaming, if not literally then symbolically: from "Isn’t It Romantic" to "A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes" from Cinderella to the paramount yearning of "Over the Rainbow".

At this point, it became clear that the evening’s program had been very thoughtfully laid out by Ms. Maggart. Earlier on, in discussing dreams and love, Ms. Maggart asked the audience which natural phenomena associated with dreams occurred during the day (as opposed to the moon and the stars at night). The answer, with a little encouragement from Maggart, was rainbows. So when, sitting casually atop the grand piano, she broke out into the opening verse of this famous song, accompanied only by chords on the guitar, it was like a revelation for the audience, a journey come full circle.

This is a song that, seventy years later, is still being sung constantly around the world. But Ms. Maggart’s rendition was unique: it was stunning in its simplicity. Maggart took her time with the lyrics, bestowing upon them a soft, delicate quality with a sweet naivete that the song longs for but so rarely is afforded. The resulting wistful lullaby had her audience moved to tears.

This, like all classic songs which will never go out of style, is a metaphor for Ms. Maggart herself. It seems that no matter how many times you see her perform, it will never grow old and will never be enough.

photo by Evan Nesbitt

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