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First Nighter: Steve Ross's Brilliant Oak Room Take on Romance and Rhythm Then and Now

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Steve Ross -- now the undisputed monarch of Manhattan cabaret since the days when he shared the crown with the late Bobby Short -- has generously offered any number of world-class shows in the past. Usually, they've been tributes to living or once-living institutions like Fred Astaire, Cole Porter, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, all of whom received his polished, off-hand, subtly heart-felt accord.

So it's saying something to designate as perhaps his best show ever the current presentation (through February 12) at the Oak Room at the Algonquin -- his one-time and once again local home. He calls it "Rhythm & Romance," and it's possible that a veteran boite-goer's memory might be fuzzy about his performing achievements. Yet, while previous first-rate outings saluted individuals who've deserved his impeccable and always dapper attention, this one is exultant by dint of its probing deeper into the ever-evolving zeitgeist and -- without ever calling blatant attention to its significance -- discovering how radical the change is.

Just start by understanding it's not necessarily an accident that "Rhythm & Romance" shows up at the same time Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher's movie No Strings Attached -- about a young woman who wants only good sex from her partner, despite his growing desire (if "desire" even has meaning nowadays) for something more -- hits theaters.

The flick, opening to better box-office returns than expected, succinctly throws into relief the difference between contemporary romance and how romance played out -- with various results and in various rhythms -- during a good stretch of the 20th century. And this is not even to mention the international popularity of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" with its repeated nonsense-syllable riff.

"A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces/An airline ticket to romantic places," Ross warbles in his characteristically plangent tones when he begins the 1936 Holt Marvell (Eric Maschwitz)-Jack Strachey-Harry Link standard, "These Foolish Things," Imagine anyone -- other than anyone who knows the song -- echoing those sentiments today when a declaratory "let's f___!" would get to a similar point more bluntly. Or try to think of someone reminiscing, as Cole Porter did in "Just One of Those Things" (1935), that a past romantic evening was "a trip to the moon on gossamer wings." (Try to remember the last time someone of your acquaintance used the word "gossamer," although probably not that many of Porter's upper-class chums did, either.)

Talking of Porter, who wrote as someone regularly trapped in the love that dare not speak its name, he gets plenty of attention in Ross's program, as does Lorenz Hart, another dare-not-speak-its-name practitioner. The romantic longing that courses through both canons like a surging subterranean river was likely what fueled their many lyrics about passions requited and just as often, or more often, unrequited. "Unrequited love's a bore/And I've got it pretty bad," Hart wrote in "Glad to Be Unhappy" and in what could easily have been a painful autobiographical moment. Ross catches the song's sweet torment, as he does with the much-less-sung Richard Rodgers-Hart tear-tugger, "I Still Believe in You."

He also pays homage to Noel Coward -- another homosexual lyricist -- whose view of love is of something constantly not constant. He does a medley, again with his abundantly haunting vocal and piano flourishes, of the great man's songs dealing with romantic hope-against-hope, "Someday I'll Find You," "I'll See You Again" and "I'll Follow My Secret Heart." What was the secret in Coward's heart at a time, unlike now, when songwriters, good as so many of them are, don't go on about secret hearts?

(If the answer has to do with Sir Noel's homosexuality, the entire subject of the many homosexuals credited with such a large percentage of the great songs in the Great American Songbook is an article -- or full-length book -- for another time.)

While ballads are a good portion of Ross's inclusions as he suggests with such subliminal persuasion how the notion of romance has shifted emotional gears over the decades, he doesn't forget the promise of the "rhythm" in his title. His opening is the little-known Ted Koehler-Harold Arlen "Spreadin' Rhythm Around," a humdinger of a swinger at the end of which he jokes, "And they said I couldn't get down."

He also kids with the Donald Swann-Michael Flanders "Have Some Madeira, M'Dear," which gets a Porter-ish kick out of wordplay while depicting an elderly gentleman's seduction of a younger woman. Another example of sophisticated punning not prized as highly in these times is the Dion Titheradge-Ivor Novello "And Her Mother Came Too."

Also sly of Ross is his bow to the French, who, needless to say, regularly claim proprietary rights to romance. He does the Jacques Brel (okay, Brel was Belgian) "Fanette" in the Mort Shuman-Eric Blau English translation." Pre-encore, he faux-closes by playing piano but not singing on several Edith Piaf signature songs. Now there's a woman who really gave impassioned 20th-century romance a strenuous work-out.

Ross begs off with the Rodgers-Hart "My Romance," having indeed made the evening very much his basilisk-eyed look at, and velvet-gloved handling of, the eternal and eternally altering subject.