Good Girl/Bad Girl

Maude Maggart at the Algonquin Hotel on Saturday, January 27.

One of the many things that annoy me about American Idol (which I watch occasionally out of morbid curiosity) is the way the judges throw around the word cabaret like an insult. I understand that they’re looking for a pop star, not a chanteuse, but to dismiss an entire genre, a great tradition of American music, with such carelessness strikes me as unseemly.

I think part of the problem is the implicit assumption that cabaret is monotonous—invariably a low-voiced, cigarette smoker drearily husking her way through songs of the 1930s and ’40s—and that’s grossly unfair. Thirty-one-year-old Maude Maggart puts the lie to it immediately with her deliciously versatile voice. A skilled interpreter, she expressively modulates from rich and sultry to breezy and girlish or brassy and bold or warm and full to match the mood of each song she sings. The effect is hypnotic. On Saturday night my brother and I hung on her every note.

To be honest, neither of us is particularly familiar with cabaret. Our knowledge of the classic American songbook encompasses little more than the big Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald standards and a few old musicals. But we’d both read a bit about Maggart, and I’d heard her on NPR, so we decided to check out her show at the Algonquin Hotel during his brief visit to New York, if only for the experience, the departure from my usual orchestral fare and Michael’s typical rock concerts.

The show is titled Good Girl/Bad Girl, which, frankly, gave me pause, but I figured if we were going retro, dated gender stereotypes might be part of the package. So when Maggart cheerfully announced after her opening numbers that she actually thinks the whole virgin-whore dichotomy is total crap, I laughed with delight. Not only is Maggart an amazing singer, but she’s also a sweetly unapologetic feminist after my own heart. Good Girl/Bad Girl is her way of exploring and problematizing that unforgiving, dehumanizing binary. (I cannot express how much it tickles me to pull out problematize, that classic English-major word, in a reflection on a cabaret show.)

Maggart has selected songs that suggest a wide assortment of personas, ranging from the innocent optimism of “The Folks on the Hill” to the ribald cynicism of “Marriage Is for Old Folks,” and that variety showcases the versatility of her voice and the sensitivity of her interpretations. She brought out the songs’ humor and coquetry and passion and devotion without ever sacrificing musicality; her performance was engrossing, both emotionally and musically.

On some of the ballads, Maggart set a languid tempo that might have felt sluggish with a lesser singer, but which she sustained admirably with powerful breath control and an eloquent croon. The pinnacle of that came when she sang Joan Baez’s “Love Song to a Stranger.” With achingly long phrases and ardent tone, Maggart captivated everyone in the Algonquin’s intimate Oak Room. After her last note faded, you could hear the soft sighs of audience members releasing their held breaths.

But Maggart isn’t just a balladeer. She opens the show with “How Could Red Riding Hood Have Been So Very Good,” an amusingly petulant, spunky number from the 1920s, and later delivers a riotously flirty rendition of “I Want to Be Bad,” first sung by Helen Kane, the inspiration for the iconic Betty Boop.

Maggart returns to the crimson-cloaked nursery book character in her encore, singing “I Know Things Now,” Red Riding Hood’s post-wolf reflection from the Sondheim musical Into the Woods. It’s a brilliant choice, neatly bookending the show, but more than that, it reflects the way she, like Sondheim and lyricist James Lapine, has been seeking to revisit familiar old stories with a fresh sensibility.

I adored Maggart’s sociological approach to the music, the way her program sometimes felt—in the best possible way—like an academic thesis in musical form, but none of that would have mattered if she weren’t such a talented singer. She even managed to make me appreciate the gorgeous but reprehensible “What’s the Use of Wonderin’” from Carousel. Of course we should all stay away from the abusive Billy Bigelows of the world, but as Maggart ruefully points out, it’s easy to fall under the love song’s twisted spell when Richard Rodgers shapes a melody so beautifully.

It isn’t just the melody, though. It’s the singer, spinning a resplendent vocal thread, transfixing me and Michael and everyone else in the room. Screw American Idol: this is great music.

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I just realized that this is my 100th post to Much Review About Nothing! Frankly, I’m shocked that I seem to have retained some diligence from my schooldays.

Thanks to whoever might be reading this. I joke that my mother is the only person who visits this blog, but Sean, my web support guru, tells me there are another couple dozen or so of you out there. I’d probably write even if it were just Mom, but knowing that these words aren’t disappearing unseen into the ether makes posting that much more fun. I hope you stick around for another 100 entries.