MaudeMaggart came to town with her latest show, Parents and Children, trailing rave reviews the way a comet trails light. From the New York Times to Cabaret Scenes, critics have been throwing superlatives at her with the profligacy of insurance company CEOs awarding themselves bonuses. When I took my seat at the Kranzberg Center, therefore, I was prepared to be impressed.
And so I was, albeit not quite as much the East coast critics have been. Make no mistake; Ms. Maggart is a tremendously talented young singer who gets right to the heart of a song. She knows what the lyrics mean to her and delivers that meaning with a supple, silken voice and a poised stage presence. Her selection of material is wide-ranging and intelligently assembled, and music director John Boswell’s arrangements fit her as beautifully as her stylish black evening gown.
So what’s my complaint? Primarily, it’s with what the Times critic Stephen Holden calls her “fluid body language” and what I saw as physical exaggeration – a tendency to rely on overtly theatrical gestures, some of which shade over into Cabaret Cliché territory. At times my companion for the evening actually stopped looking at Ms. Maggart so that she could better appreciate her sensitive singing without being distracted by baroque movement.
It struck me, in short, as indicating rather than acting.
In all fairness, it must be said that Ms. Maggart’s physicality seems to be a natural part of her stage persona and, in fact, once I got accustomed to it I found it less distracting. But on the whole I don’t think it served her well. Too often, it pulled me out of the compelling moments Ms. Maggart’s voice was creating. When, on the other hand, when she held the mic instead of working with it in the stand, I felt the resulting restriction in movement made her performance that much more effective. Trite though it may be to say so, there really are times when less is more.
That said, there’s no question that Parents and Children is an evening of highly evocative readings of wonderful songs offering hilarious and heartbreaking insights on the complex ways in which generations clash and commingle. Many of them were new to me, including a revelatory pair of tunes by the unjustly neglected Marshall Barer (best known as the lyricist for Once Upon a Mattress, written with unjustly neglected composer Mary Rogers), the big band novelty “You’re Too Good for Good for Nothing Me” (which Helen Forrest recorded with Harry James), Alec Wilder and Loonis McGlohan’s winsome “Be a Child” and Bobbie Green’s sadly funny “No Way Jose”, about a mother-daughter relationship going wrong in a very terrible yet understandable way.
Even when the material was more familiar, Ms. Maggart and Mr. Boswell gave it a new and personal twist. Combining Maury Yeston’s “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” with Robin Williamson’s “First Boy I Loved” (immortalized by Judy Collins), for example, results in a kind of musical double exposure, with a mature woman’s reflection on her own first love superimposed on a young girl’s discovery of her grandmother’s romantic past. It was touching and beautifully rendered. And while Ms. Maggart described the sentiments of the Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” as dated and a bit unhealthy (which, I suppose, they are) that didn’t stop her from delivering a heartfelt performance.
There were also many delightful comic moments in the evening. The double entendre drollery of Rodgers and Hart’s “A Little Birdie Told Me So” (from the now-forgotten 1926 hit Peggy-Ann), complete with whistling chorus, was great fun as was Marshall Barer’s “Billions of Beautiful Boys” with its endlessly inventive variations on the number three (as in “two boys and me”). Ms. Maggart also sprinkled the evening with amusing recollections of her childhood as a bi-coastal baby. There was, perhaps, a bit more biography than necessary (especially since there was a fairly good one in the program), but that’s a minor gripe.
Ditto the occasional lighting problems. More than once Ms. Maggart was either in the wrong light or out of the light altogether. Lighting at the Kranzberg is normally (you should pardon the expression) spot-on, so it’s hard to know exactly what to make of that.
Cabaret is a very big tent with room for a wide variety of performance styles and Ms. Maggart is nothing if not stylish. The fact that it’s a style I did not find entirely congenial in no way detracts from her talent or remarkable success. It’s a matter of personal taste, which is very nearly as idiosyncratic as performance style.
Maude Maggart’s Parents and Children concludes on Saturday, October 24; for ticket information, call 314-534-1111 or visit the Cabaret St. Louis web site. To find out where she’s playing next or purchase any of her several CDs, visit her web site at maudemaggart.com.
Next on the Cabaret St. Louis schedule: Steve Ross with an Alan Jay Lerner tribute November 4 through 7, a two-night stand by Nellie McKay November 18 and 19, and the first local appearance of mother-son duo Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart December 9 through 12. Check out cabaretstl.org for details.