Growing up in suburban Southern California, my motto might have been “Eastward Ho!” I imagined life there, especially in New York, as so much more sophisticated. When I finally made the move, I did indeed find the East a better fit.
But my adult eyes couldn’t help but notice that the Manhattan I dreamt of—with an El Morocco and a Stork Club on every block—was no longer. Probably it never really existed. Oh, well.
Yet every now and then, I find a bit of it—like yesterday, when I went to Dino’s Backstage to hear the fabulous Marilyn Maye, song stylist extraordinaire, bewitch a full room of admirers.
Great cabaret starts with a great venue, and Dino’s Celebrity Room is pretty much ideal. It’s elegantly dark (black walls lined with movie star photos and a zebra carpet—hello El Morocco!) and ideally intimate; the food and drink are terrific; the service warm, polite, and unobtrusive. Dino’s is pretty much the nightclub of my fantasies. OK, it’s in Glenside rather than the Upper East Side. But that also means you can park!
Of course, the entertainment matters most—and in getting Maye, Dino’s hit a home run.
A doyenne of the Great American Songbook, Maye’s appearances have become almost legendary events. She isn’t coy about her age so I won’t be either: She’s 90. (Let that sink in for a minute.)
Now consider that Maye’s voice, one of the most lushly beautiful in pop music—although lower now, and with a pleasing huskiness—is in almost miraculously pristine shape. Range, power, pitch, absolute steadiness and dynamic control would be impressive in a singer half her age.
And what an artist! I’ve always maintained that cabaret banter is about the hardest thing there is for a performer. It requires exactly the right balance—not too much, not too little—and charm to burn. Maye makes it look easy.
But it’s her interpretive skills that lift Maye to the top echelon, and her insights and sense of shape have only grown with time. Once a classic pop centrist, Maye is now fully a jazz singer, working in real musical conversation with the excellent Tedd Firth Trio, making something memorable of every moment. Singing doesn’t get better than this.
Three extended medleys—Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and songs from My Fair Lady—anchored Maye’s generous set, showcasing her exquisite taste in material. For me, though, two particular highlights stand out. “Autumn in New York” was sung so quietly it seemed to emerge from nowhere, yet you could almost smell the leaves and hear them crunching underfoot. “Joey, Joey, Joey,” Frank Loesser’s haunting inner monologue about wanderlust from The Most Happy Fella, was simply magnificent—actors could take a lesson from the way every line emerged as a discovery. Maye’s seemingly casual handling of the odd little downward runs sent shivers down my spine.
But don’t take my word for it—see her for yourselves. Happily, Maye will be back at Dino’s for two shows on New Year’s Eve. (I’m sure they’ll sell out fast, so book now!)
Meanwhile, check out the elegant room, which features nightclub-style performances on a regular basis. Dino’s tagline is “Bringing back glamour… one cocktail at a time.” I’ll drink to that!
Dino’s Backstage takes reservations for performances and dining. For more information, visit their website.