Cabaret star Andrea Marcovicci seeks to revive a vanished era

Howard Reich

10:20 AM CDT, July 30, 2013


It was an era of glamorous stars playing glittering venues in America's most sophisticated cities: Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles.

America's greatest vocalists were flourishing then, in the 1940s and '50s, Billie Holiday, Bobby Short, Frank Sinatra and many more lighting up Chicago nightspots such as the London House and the Empire Room downtown, the Sutherland Show Lounge and Club DeLisa on the South Side, the Chez Paree on the North and the Green Mill in Uptown.

Among them, only the Green Mill still presents music nightly, and in only a slender portion of what was once a sprawling space at Lawrence and Broadway.

But at least one singer still clings to the romance of an era when audiences were nearly as smartly attired as the performers they went to see, and the music played into the wee small hours of the morning. In what may be the most historically rooted of cabaret diva Andrea Marcovicci's shows, "Moonlight Cocktail," she will explore a sadly vanished era and, in effect, try to re-create it, at least for a few moments each night in Chicago.

"More than any other show (of Marcovicci's), this may be a mood piece," says the singer, who will play the Chicago premiere engagement of "Moonlight Cocktail" Wednesday through Monday at Davenport's, on North Milwaukee Avenue.

"I want people to truly feel the feeling of wearing a corsage, getting dressed to go out and spending some time in that world.

"I'm celebrating Bobby Short, Mabel Mercer, Julie Wilson, Billie Holiday, Portia Nelson, Hildegarde and my mother, as well, because I'm singing songs that my mother held dear," adds Marcovicci, who turns 65 in November.

"So it's really about the songs, who sang them and, above all, the ambience that they created."

As Marcovicci suggests, her link to this era is deeply personal. Her mother, Helen Marcovicci, was a nightclub singer in New York who introduced her to this world and occasionally has performed with her daughter. Marcovicci's father, a doctor, also reveled in the realm of the after-dark, thereby further luring Andrea into its mysteries.

"My father came over from Europe, where he had learned to waltz," says Marcovicci. "(He) was born in 1885, he was in Vienna in the early 1900s, so he learned a waltz that was really extraordinary. My mother tells me that when they went dancing, (ballroom guru) Arthur Murray would follow them around, because my father could reverse (dance) effortlessly.

"My daddy was really famous for dancing. … He met my mom on a blind date – she was a singer, but it was his dancing I'm sure that took her fancy."

The Marcoviccis took their young daughter to the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel and the Empire Room at the Waldorf-Astoria and, moreover, enrolled her in ballroom-dancing school for her entire childhood, she says. She regrets that she missed out on Manhattan's Stork Club and El Morocco, but at least her parents told her tales of those places, which were among their haunts.

Inevitably, the waltz era gave way to a jazzier, more colloquially American sound that came define clubs, cabarets and showrooms. Marcovicci's attempt to re-capture that era has been aided by her longtime accompanist, pianist-songwriter Shelly Markham, who grew up in Chicago and remembers the tail end of that era.

"I was taken to the Chez Paree to see Sophie Tucker – that was my granddad's favorite performer, and I remember it," says Markham, who tried to help Marcovicci understand what that world was like.

Marcovicci's "Moonlight Cocktail" began, says Markham, "out of a conversation she had with her mother, (who) played the St. Regis (Hotel), and then Julie Wilson replaced her.

"And (her mother) said, 'Those were the days where there were clubs on every corner. There were dance bands, there were comedians, and you could go from one club to another, and it was all in the '50s.'

"And Andrea goes, 'My God,' and she started to do the research, and you know how much she loves that."

Indeed, most of Marcovicci's shows give historical background and context to the songs she's singing and how they emerged, but "Moonlight Cocktail" attempts to bring that history directly into the present.

The songs generally are not the past hits that admirers of this era already know but, to a large degree, less familiar pieces revived for this occasion. Songs such as "All in Fun" and "I Don't Smoke" don't turn up very much in jazz or cabaret sets these days, though the title song retains some fame from its place in the Glenn Miller repertoire.

Marcovicci says she did her research by devouring biographies and other tomes on the era and by "trolling on YouTube," which has become an indispensable repository of information for musicians and performance devotees alike.

All of which must have led her to ask herself a key question: Why did that more elegant era mostly fade away? Was it simply the inevitable changing of tastes or something more profound?

"TV! TV! Staying home too much," says Marcovicci. "I make a joke (in the show) about the fact that Mabel (Mercer) sang three shows, at 10, 12 and 2" in the morning. "And nowadays people want me to sing at 7. Pretty soon they'll want me to sing at 4!

"Definitely TV was the downfall of the era of the '40s and '50s," adds Marcovicci. "There was a new phenomenon, where entertainment could be brought into your own home. … Kaye Ballard and Carol Burnett and all these young comics started to be seen on TV, and you didn't have to go to these clubs to see them anymore."

And yet audiences still go out to the venues that have endured and those that have sprung up in our era, such as Davenport's, Chicago's leading cabaret. TV screens may be getting bigger and ever more sophisticated, but they don't yet yield quite the goose bumps of a live performer standing a few feet away and singing for all she's worth.

That's why Marcovicci continues to pack intimate rooms across the country, and why this music continues to live.

"What makes our work so special is lyrics that are so clever and witty, as well as being touching," says Marcovicci.

"And I think there's always going to be a longing for that."

And gifted artists yearning to fulfill it.

To read more from Howard Reich, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.


Twitter @howardreich

Andrea Marcovicci performs "Moonlight Cocktail" at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and Monday; 7 p.m. Sunday; at Davenport's, 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave.; $37-$42 plus two-drink minimum. Shelly Markham, Marcovicci's accompanist, celebrates the release of his recording "Things I've Learned Along the Way" with his own show, which also features Anne and Mark Burnell, at 4 p.m. Sunday at Davenport's; $15 plus two-drink minimum. 773-278-1830 or davenportspianobar.com.