First-Nighter: The Maude-like, Un-Maude-like Maude Maggart

06/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What's truly appealing about Maude Maggart is that what you initially see--and hear--isn't what you eventually get. Not over the course of the hour during which she entertains with a pro's steady hand. Yup, she fools you seven ways to Sunday and plainly gets a kick out of it.

She's already started her wily cabaret game with the given name Maude, hasn't she? That's not the name she was handed at birth by her parents, the actors Brandon Maggart and Diane McAfee. It would seem kinda obvious she assumed the lace-fringed "Maude" for more than the alliteration. She wants to suggest the old-fashioned girl the tag implies.

Furthermore, in her current "Three Little Words" act at the Algonquin's Oak Room, she underlines the sought-after image by singing the Johnny Mercer-Jerome Kern "I'm Old-Fashioned." And forget that she includes the charming ballad as having a three-word title in a program supposedly consisting solely of songs with three-word titles. Sure, you have three little words if you take the hyphen out of the adjective "old-fashioned"--which Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger and Eric Davis don't do in their recently-published "Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer."

Never you mind. What's a dissed hyphen in a supper-club act that initially looks as if it's going to be a sweet young thing's homage to love and then slowly and delightfully goes in many other scintillating directions? For Maggart, that's all part of the fun. She may look demure in her brown-velvet gown, and demure is, indeed, part of her make-up, but there's way more bubbling under the dainty surface.

This is, of course, part of the point Maggart's making about the "I love you" declaration. She begins to sing the famous Harry Ruby-Bert Kalmar "Three Little Words" but cuts herself off to explain that the familiar admission may be simple but the underlying emotion isn't and that she intends to explore the many, often conflicting feelings that come bidden or unbidden with, as she maintains, the ultimately complex sentiment.

Her opener is "Love is in the Air," and it's sung with the breathy wonder of a young girl discovering love for the first time and barely able to raise her eyes to look at the people in whom she's confiding. Stephen Sondheim wrote the sweet ditty to start A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum but canned it when show doctor Jerome Robbins arrived to suggest something different was needed for the tuner's start and "Comedy Tonight" was born.

But Maggart doesn't linger long in an Edenic mood. Though she never completely abandons a certain fragility, she does imbue her voice with more steel as she progresses. She almost immediately heads into a certain determined coyness by warbling "I Said No," the Frank Loesser-Jule Styne song that passed for racy in the 40's and is the confession of a young woman after having succumbed to an importuning young man.

Before long--while John Boswell smoothly keeps up the pace at the piano--Maggart is ripping through Sondheim's tongue-twisting "Not Getting Married" from Company and moving on with amused conviction to the anthemic E. Y. Harburg-Harold Arlen "Down With Love." Next thing you know she's up on the piano Helen Morgan-style doing torch songs. Included is "Body and Soul," which she delivers as if suddenly playing the climactic scene in a romantic drama. No longer anything like the dewy-eyed ingenue, she's now a woman pleading her case to a man who may be threatening to walk out the door.

After "My Old Flame"--during which she ably gets a big laugh even Mae West didn't get when repeating the line "I can't even think of his name"--there's Tom Lehrer's "Masochism Tango." While asking to be beaten and otherwise maltreated in this mock scorcher, she's working the room, vamping a ring-sider as if on the verge of offering a lap dance and, as the last chords fade, arching over the piano in total sexual surrender.

Oh, what a sly minx Maggart is for knowing full well that maintaining vestiges of Maude-esque naiveté in voice and manner--that sustaining that soupcon of awkward grace--allows her to be as suggestive as she wants while keeping her from ever appearing at all vulgar. As is well-known, there are two Maggart sisters on the current music scene. The other is Fiona Apple. On the surface, she'd seem to be the out-there, post-modern girl. But Maude may be the one proving that everything old is spanking-new again.