3:49 PM CDT, August 1, 2013
It's not hard to imagine that Andrea Marcovicci would have flourished in an earlier era, when opulent cabarets and showrooms dotted America's biggest cities, and singers kept audiences entertained nearly till sun-up.
As it happens, Marcovicci lives in a more contemporary age – though not necessarily a more sophisticated one, at least so far as music and after-dark glamour are concerned. Yet she seems intent on keeping historic epochs alive, perpetually reviving songs we've forgotten and, in her newest show, "Moonlight Cocktail," also rejuvenating memories of past singers and the cabarets that welcomed them.
For "Moonlight Cocktail," in its Chicago premiere, not only rekindles lost songs but tells their stories. Marcovicci soliloquizes on the artists who championed these tunes and reflects upon the nightclubs where this music reigned. In Chicago, the Empire Room, Chez Paree and other fabled places figure into her story, which also ruminates on New York boites such as El Morocco and Cafe Society.
In some ways, "Moonlight Cocktail" stands as Marcovicci's most personal show, in that she weaves stories of her parents' adventures in the long-gone showrooms. You could say that Marcovicci is trying to pull the past into the present with this evening, and she succeeds in ways intended and not. For while her stories vividly recall nightlife of the 1940s and '50s, her vocal style sometimes veers toward the anachronistic, which can be jarring.
At its best, "Moonlight Cocktail" bathes this music in the warmth of Marcovicci's affection for a long-gone period of American songwriting. Though she sounded tremulous and raspy in opening the show with the title song Wednesday evening at Davenport's, after several phrases her instrument began to cooperate. Regardless, this nocturne – which Marcovicci took at an appropriately unhurried tempo – established the ultra-romantic tone for the rest of the program.
From this point forth, Marcovicci linked particular songs to historic singers, in so doing recalling the contributions of Mabel Mercer, Julie Wilson, Billie Holiday, Kaye Ballard and others. Each piece, then, became a look back into a salient moment in American musical culture. It was these artists, and many more, who established the template for cabaret in America, and Marcovicci clearly seeks to pay them their due.
The pivotal moment in "Moonlight Cocktail" occurred in "I Don't Smoke," a Portia Nelson miniature rarely sung today that appears comical at first but takes a dark, devastating turn. Only an extraordinarily skilled performer could pull it off, and Marcovicci made this aria the shattering centerpiece of a show with a broad emotional range. Anyone who didn't have moist eyes during the progress of this song was not paying attention.
Marcovicci's work here, and elsewhere in the evening, reaffirmed her position as a consummate actor who sings, rather than as a top-flight singer who acts. The difference may seem slight, but the virtuosity she showed in producing certain facial expressions, body stances and hand gestures outshone her vocals (she was accompanied by pianist Shelly Markham and bassist Jim Cox).
She didn't need to sing a note, in other words, for the audience to realize that she was about to strike a comic chord in "Teeny Tiny" (from Ballard's wacky repertoire) or exude high spirits in Cole Porter's "I'm in Love Again" (a Bobby Short signature tune). The sweet innocence she evoked in "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup," associated with cabaret singer Hildegarde, amounted to an acting tour de force.
Vocally, Marcovicci's work was mixed. She lavished far too much vibrato on long-held notes, a manner of singing that, in truth, Frank Sinatra rendered obsolete by the 1940s. Moreover, there's an unmistakable disconnect between Marcovicci's top voice and her middle register, as if two different artists were at work, the dichotomy disturbing the continuity of some of her interpretations.
And yet, when she took on "You Go to My Head," in homage to Holiday, Marcovicci sang with an ardor, a depth of feeling and an awareness of the weight of every syllable that almost made you forget the vocal shortcomings.
Like all great artists, Marcovicci made the listener believe.
Andrea Marcovicci's 'Moonlight Cocktail'
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, Monday; 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Davenport's, 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Admission: $37-$42 plus two-drink minimum; 773-278-1830 or davenportspianobar.com
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