Maude Maggart, who recently opened a five-week run at the Oak Room, has a sweet and pretty voice, but this is at most a secondary attraction. There are plenty of singers in New York clubs who can out-sing her, but none who can out-think her. In fact, there are precious few playwrights on Broadway who can dream up more ingenious ways to link existing songs into a musical collage. Drawing upon widely varying styles and traditions, Maggart’s shows are more like a one-woman Off-Broadway show than a typical cabaret set. Singing the subtext as much as the notes or the lyrics, she creates a kind of Jukebox Musical of the Gods.
Her opening three numbers are the most suspenseful part, wherein we try to figure out how one song links to another, and where the whole thing’s going. By utilizing Alec Wilder’s “Be a Child” (in which she touches hands with members of the audience in an exaggerated child-like manner), her late mentor Marshall Barer’s anthem of dislocated identity “What’s My Name,” and Steven Sondheim’s “Beautiful” (which, in her interpretation, is not necessarily about beauty, but about transformation as a perpetual state), the overall arc of the evening reveals itself to be a meditation on how our families and our experiences (particularly our first loves) shape our notions of self, and how those notions constantly change thereafter. “The Songs of Barry Manilow,” it ain’t.
A Maggart show is also like a collector’s-edition DVD, complete with Easter eggs for the hardcore song nerds in the house. She leaves it for us to notice, for instance, that “Billions of Beautiful Boys,” Barer’s jubilant celebration of ménage-a-trois, is, in fact, now in 3/4 time. Rodgers and Hart’s 1926 rarity “A Little Birdie Told Me So” (the title refers to an unwanted delivery from Mr. Stork) is further animated when Maggart takes the lyrics literally and, as Lorenz Hart suggests, “illustrates the meaning with her hands,” not to mention bird whistles.
Maggart (whose little sister, Fiona Apple, was present at her opening last Tuesday) maintains a careful balance between traditional cabaret fare, show tunes, and standards, not to mention material rarely heard in the Oak Room, from the Incredible String Band to the Roches to Dolly Parton. She also presents both sides of an issue: a tale of a selfish parent and a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, Babbie Green’s “No Way, Jose” is counterbalanced by “Coat of Many Colors,” Parton’s parable of a self-sacrificing mother. Maggart makes it clear that both viewpoints are correct — there aren’t many cabaret singers who remind me of Nietzsche’s famous line about how there are no truths, only interpretations. (It sounded better in German.) Here, interpretation is everything. As an encore, she hits us with Irving Berlin’s “Moonshine Lullaby,” making me realize that the Annie Get Your Gun opus has everything: parental love, tenderness, and controlled substances.
Maude Maggart performs Tuesday through Saturday at the Oak Room through May 23. Yeah, that’s right, we do cabaret reviews too. In journalistic parlance this is called “going to your left.”