by David Weigand The Chronicle March 24, 2018 Updated: March 25, 2018 2:12pm
Feinstein’s At the Nikko Hotel, San Francisco, CA, March 23, 2018
Marilyn Maye shows her staying power as a captivating entertainer during her show at Feinstein’s, mixing patter and jokes with heartfelt singing. Photo: Scott Strazzante, The Chronicle
It’s always wonderful to see and hear a veteran singer. We sit and listen for traces of what we remember from their glory days and delight in how they still seem to enjoy delivering a song.
We never mind putting our thumbs on the scale listening to older singers, but the audience members at Feinstein’s at the Nikko were able to put their thumbs away Friday night, March 23: Opening the first of two sold-out shows, the ageless Marilyn Maye didn’t need anything but the audience, a crack trio led by the great Billy Stritch and her peerless ability to tell the story within each song and medley, just as she’s done for quite a while now.
It’s generally not considered in good taste to reveal someone’s age, but Maye, who appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson 76 times, proudly announced she will turn 90 on April 10. And let’s just say that 89 never looked or sounded as good.
Bejeweled with diamond cuffs and earrings and a brooch that looked like an aerial photograph of Tokyo at night, Maye put her own special touch on standards such as “I’m Through With Love,” which segued into “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” as well as lesser-known songs such as “Bye Bye Country Boy,” the story of a “girl singer” who finds temporary romance doing a week at a county fair.
This was a show of high points, but among the most memorable was the pairing of the songs “Guess Who I Saw Today” with “Fifty Percent,” from the Broadway show “Ballroom” and sung by “the other woman” who has to settle for only half of the man she loves.
Dressed in an elegant turquoise pants ensemble beneath a fringed matching serape, Maye peppered her set list with medleys, including one comprising Ray Charles hits (she recorded “Maye Sings Ray” after Charles’ death) and an equally sweet paean to Fats Waller. “Look to the Rainbow” from “Finian’s Rainbow” faded into “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which in turn transitioned to “The Rainbow Connection.”
When Maye does a medley like that, it’s far more than just convenient packaging of “rainbow” song titles: She deftly finds thematic connections in each song, making the songs individual chapters in a longer story.
Throughout the show, she chatted and joked about her impending birthday (“I’m glad to be anywhere”), punctuated the finale of one medley with a couple of nicely executed high kicks, and led the audience in a few sing-along moments.
“I’ve been doing that for a hundred years,” she told the audience at the end of the Waller medley, which included the deliciously suggestive “Honeysuckle Rose.”
“And the song, too,” she added with perfect comic timing.
In addition to Stritch, who was also her occasional duet partner, Maye’s backup trio included two top Bay Area musicians: bass player John Wiitala, and drummer David Rokeach.
Maye wrapped the evening with a medley of “Here’s to Life” and James Taylor’s “Secret o’ Life,” whose lyrics include the suggestion that life’s secret is “enjoying the passage of time.” Maye echoed the sentiment of those songs with the encore, “It’s Today” from “Mame” — an even better choice than “Happy Birthday” for a singer for whom time seems to stand still.
David Wiegand is an assistant managing editor and the TV critic of The San Francisco Chronicle. Follow him on Facebook. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV
Marilyn Maye: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 24. Feinstein’s at the Nikko Hotel, 222 Mason St. Show is sold out, but there will be a waiting list starting at 6 p.m. (415) 394-1111. www.feinsteinsatthenikko.com