Andrea Marcovicci and Ute Lemper are the most prominent female cabaret-style singers under 60 working the concert circuit. Both specialize in songs of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, but where Lemper subjects her mostly European repertoire to deconstructionist reinterpretations and theatrical pyrotechnics, Marcovicci takes a simpler and more straightforward approach to classic American pop. In her wonderful new show, Ten Cents a Dance: A Tribute to Ruth Etting, presented in its Chicago premiere by Centre East, she pays homage to the Nebraska-bred chanteuse who got her start in Prohibition-era Chicago nightclubs–including one run by legendary mobster “Big Jim” Colosimo–and went on to become “Queen of the Torch Singers” on Broadway and radio. Marcovicci’s renditions of anguished Etting hits such as “Ten Cents a Dance,” “Mean to Me,” and “Love Me or Leave Me” (as well as lighter, livelier fare like “Shine On Harvest Moon,” “Shaking the Blues Away,” and “Button Up Your Overcoat”) are marked by intelligent understatement and perfectly crafted, dramatically telling gestures. Between songs she keeps up a running commentary on Etting’s tumultuous life, in particular her marriage to Martin “Moe the Gimp” Snyder, a small-time Windy City hood who helped make her a star but then nearly ruined her career and her life with his jealousy: when she left him for her accompanist in 1937, Snyder shot and wounded his rival. Etting, who died in 1978, is fairly unknown today, despite a popular 1955 Doris Day-James Cagney movie biography, Love Me or Leave Me. (Some of Marcovicci’s sharpest material concerns the considerable liberties Hollywood took with Etting’s story–for one thing, she was a teetotaler, but Day played her as something of a lush.) Though Marcovicci’s voice recalls the young Joni Mitchell with its bell-like top range and dark, slightly husky low end, it’s far from perfect technically: her vibrato’s a little wobbly, the shift between her upper and lower registers is hardly seamless, and she occasionally lets a note go flat when she’s really belting. But her warm, elegant stage persona, her insights into the nuances of her texts, her shrewd choice of material, and her witty patter make Ten Cents a Dance a funny, touching, often illuminating salute from one of the best performers of our day to a great star of another. Saturday, 8 PM, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie; 847-673-6300. ALBERT WILLIAMS
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrea Marcovicci.