A Night at the Oak Room

I’ve never been in a room with so many face lifts. Terrifying. The air was heavy with perfume. They wore diamonds dangling from fingers, wrists, ears, throats, or glittering in their hair. The men wore suits, enhanced with ties, cravats, and handkerchiefs daringly sticking up from breast pockets. These were the kind of people who own more than one house, car, boat. These were not people like me and Scott.

Here we were jammed cheek by jowl into the Oak Room with people who didn’t live in the East Village or Park Slope or Harlem or Chelsea or any of the other places our friends reside. We were the youngest in the room. I was the only woman not wearing make up; Scott the only man whose shirt was not cinched with a tie. We overheard them subtly pointing out the celebs. Only one of which we’d heard of—Helen Gurly Brown—seated at a table just near us (the Oak Room ain’t big; everyone was seated at a table just near us) and we weren’t a hundred per cent sure which one was her.

What the hell were we doing there? Scott’s fault. He knows that I was brought up on the songbooks of Duke Ellington, Gershwin, Cole Porter. That my head is jammed full of the lyrics of hundreds and hundreds of standards from the twenties, thirties and forties. He was shocked to learn that I had never seen any of that music performed live, had never been to any cabaret. We were going to celebrate two years living together by doing just that.

This was opening night. Before the show even started Andrea Marcovicci, looking divine and very much the diva with her short silvery hair, high cheekbones, and black and silver shell top and skirt ensemble, was circling the room greeting people with a theatrical "Hello, darling!" and air kisses. She seemed to know almost everyone. The couple seated opposite us from Bay Ridge (Sydneysiders, think Sylvania Waters) made sure they attended all her shows, owned all her cds, and were shocked that I’d never heard of Andrea before.

By the time the show was about to start my expectations were through the roof. Scott had waxed over-the-top enthusiastic about her Gershwin show. It wasn’t just me expecting something earth-shatteringly good: even before the lights had gone down the room quieted, all you could hear were diamonds clinking. The expectations made the air almost as thick as if people were still allowed to smoke. Then the lights went down, everyone held their breaths. Andrea lit so beautifully that she glowed, strolled out smiling, blowing kisses, took up the microphone and sang.

Vibrato. Lots of vibrato. I hate vibrato. Her voice was not the jazzy contralto I’d been expecting. She’s more in the Mary Martin Broadway singer mold. I hate Mary Martin’s voice. The song ended, everyone applauded. Scott leaned forward, "What do you think?" I turned, gave him a frozen smile, and squeezed his knee. Fortunately she started singing "If I Were a Bell" almost at once, making it impossible for me to say anything.

Andrea didn’t destroy "If I Were a Bell" as Jean Simmons had in the movie version. Her diction was perfect, and there was considerably less vibrato. Better, I thought, nervously, but she’s not exactly Sarah Vaughan or Ute Lemper. I may be able to endure this evening. The song ended, Andrea started talking, started charming, she introduced her two accompanists, one on piano and the other on bass, both superb musicians. She began to tell the story of upper-class Jewish lyricist Frank Loesser who was never quite what his mother wanted. Tin Pan Alley so declasse. Andrea described mother and son and I could see them vividly.

Something magical happened. Andrea was wonderful, her voice suddenly the best voice I have ever heard. She sang and I was grinning. I looked around: everyone in the room was grinning. Every single person, from audience to waiters, had their eyes on her. Riveted. I hugged Scott, said, "Thank you."

She told more stories, mostly about Loesser and his first wife, who was known as the evil of two Loessers. His second wife, his widow, was in the audience, as were his two daughters, one of whom had just published a book about her father, to which Andrea referred often. I wanted to buy the book, I wanted to buy Andrea, or perhaps, be Andrea, or have this show never end, or something.

She was warm, witty, funny. An incredible story-teller. Her show is not a series of songs so much as a two-hour long opera, each song following naturally, almost, inevitably, from the next—those we all knew and could mouth the words to as well as the known-only-to-musicologists, not-sung-since-the-thirties ditties. Each story Andrea shared with us built on her previous stories. The more stories and songs Andrea sang, the more immersed in this world we became. Andrea asked us questions, laughed at the shouted answers, admitted her occasional ignorance and hoped the experts in the audience would forgive her.

She sang to each and every one of us: shaming us for breaking her heart, begging our permission to go out and play, exhorting us to go buy war bonds, flirting with us.

When it ended we were left dizzy, instantly pleading for encores, not because that’s what you do, but because we weren’t ready for the real world. The thought of leaving the hot, over-crowded Oak Room, full of all these people who had become our best friends in all the world. We applauded till our hands tingled, smiling at each other warmly, knowing that no one else could understand what we’d just experienced.

The last encore was, "Baby, It’s Cold Outside", sung with her brilliant pianist. Andrea tempted him to stay, his resistance was futile. It was hilarious. Funnier than I’ve ever heard that song be before. She invited everyone to sing along; we all did.

The show ended with Andrea being swamped with many gorgeous bouquets. It was her birthday, as well as the anniversary of her first appearance at the Oak Room some twenty years earlier. She thanked everyone, from Loesser’s family to her other friends and supporters and the music experts in the audience. She got teary; we got teary.

Neither Scott nor I were in any mood to go home. We sat in the Algonquin bar drinking cocktails. Me, one appropriately called an Andrea Marcovicci, Scott a Dorothy Parker. The diva herself held court at a table nearby, talking to everyone, shining as brightly as she had while performing. Looking not remotely tired.

I ran into her (literally) on the way back from the bathroom. Hot-cheeked and stammering I gushed about how much I’d enjoyed the show, how I’d never heard those songs performed live before. I babbled on about it being Scott’s present to me on our anniversary. She put her arm around me, beckoned to Scott to come over, hugged him too, told us that the second anniversary was special, and several other things I didn’t hear because I was in touched-by-a-goddess mode. Gormless fan, that’s me.

On our way out we passed another couple, in their seventies or early eighties. Both dressed up to the nines with beatific expressions on their faces.

"Wasn’t the show wonderful?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," the woman said. "You were there?" She sounded surprised.

We nodded, both grinning.

"So wonderful to see young people!" the man said, as though he’d never seen anyone below fifty before.

"She’s glorious, isn’t she?" Scott said.

They agreed that she was, delighted by our (in context) youthful presence, as if our sole purpose in attending the show had been to reassure them that the music of Frank Loesser would not be forgotten.

We walked home in the cold autumn night, past the over-the-top gaudiness of Times Square, tipsy, giggling and enchanted.

New York City, 19 November 2003