I’ve seen Mary Martello onstage more times than I can count. The 5-time Barrymore Award winner has played everyone from Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd to Queen Gertrude in Hamlet, from Abby Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace to Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, from a serious nun in Doubt to a singing nun in Sister Act. And she’s about to play her 17th role at the Arden Theatre, the titanic role of Madam Rose in Gypsy.
But while I’ve always been impressed with her versatility, there’s one role I never thought I’d see her play: Sir Noël Coward.
Yet that’s the role Martello played at the beginning of her cabaret performance at the Arden this weekend. Her hair slicked back, wearing a full men’s tuxedo (including white carnation), and talk/singing in a British accent, she worked her way through some of Coward’s most demanding patter songs, including a version of “I’ve Been to a Marvelous Party” that was rewritten to include clever references to some of Philadelphia’s best-known actors, playwrights, directors and producers.
Soon, after a touching version of Coward’s “Mad About the Boy” – one in which she gradually switched from a clipped Coward impression to her own smoky alto/soprano mix – she put down her cocktail glass, slipped behind a partition and changed into a green, shapeless muumuu. Pretenses gone, she told of how, as a child, she saw Coward performing on television, and how his droll songs provided a rare moment of happiness in her mother’s often-difficult life. From that point on, Martello said, the urge to “create that happiness at will became my life’s work.”
Martello’s mother didn’t live a life of elegance and sophistication; she grew up in poverty in rural Michigan. Mary devoted much of her set to celebrating the different styles of music her mother embraced and introduced her to. That meant cowboy songs (“Tumbling Tumbleweeds”), folk music (“The Little Sod Shanty on the Claim”), and early-1950s pop (“The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane”). While her voice wasn’t always polished, it was always steeped in emotion.
Some of her song choices worked as nostalgia, as with her gentle, graceful version of “Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair).” But she put a sly twist on some of her material, as with a version of The Kingston Trio’s “Scotch and Soda” that transformed the folk ditty into a torchy jazz number. And a version of Shel Silverstein’s voodoo tale “Marie Laveau,” dedicated to Martello’s son, had a bluesy guitar lick that gave the song its requisite swampy feel. (Guitarist Benjamin Rogerson and pianist Ryan Touhey provided sturdy, inventive accompaniment.)
Martello filled the night with stories of her mother, some rather lengthy (“This’d be a good time to get a drink,” she instructed her audience several times). And even after she had stopped playing Noël Coward, Martello couldn’t resist the urge to slip into character. At one point she performed Easy Cocktails from the Cursing Mommy, an Ian Frazier humor piece from The New Yorker about a manners columnist who, after a few drinks, becomes decidedly less well-mannered. As she’s done so many times in the past, Martello showed off her keen comic instincts by pricking the veneer of polite society and revealing what’s underneath.
Mary Martello revealed a lot during this rollicking, wide-ranging show. With her sharp comic skills, brawny voice and a well-chosen set list, Martello revealed a few sides of her indomitable spirit. And she also showed how, with her mother’s help, that spirit got shaped.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Mary Martello gave her final performance in the Arden Cabaret Series on February 18, 2017. The series is performed at the Arden Theatre’s Hamilton Family Arts Center – 62 North Second Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets to future shows, call the box office at (215) 922-1122, or purchase them online.