In her show about Lawrence at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room, running through next Saturday Jan. 12, Marcovicci avoids any attempt to imitate the British stage and musical comedy star's style of acting and singing. She gives instead a portrait in broad strokes of Lawrence who died unexpectedly in 1952 after dropping out of the Broadway premiere of "The King and I" due to an indisposition that turned out to be a fatal illness.
No one who saw Lawrence as Anna Leonowens opposite Yul Brynner in her final show will forget her stage-filling charm, the grace of her bodily movements, and her ability to occupy a song absolutely, although her singing voice was not a perfect instrument and tended to be off-key.
Marcovicci has all of Lawrence's best attributes plus a more musical light soprano voice with a haunting quaver and an enviable ability to float a tone. She is also as beautiful as Lawrence and has much of that star's stage presence minus a certain haughtiness that Lawrence brought to her personal role of playing the diva at all times.
So, Marcovicci would seem to be, and indeed proves herself to be, the perfect performer to take on one of the English-speaking theater's towering legends whose life spanned the first half of the 20th century and was more closely associated with actor-playwright composer Noel Coward than any other actress.
It makes for a wonderful evening of cabaret even if Marcovicci, in her enthusiasm for her subject, crowds too much biographical information, some of it read from texts, into the show so that it resembles a quickie college course -- Gertrude Lawrence 101. She should leave her reading glasses at home when she takes this show to other venues.
Marcovicci comes to the Oak Room from a critically acclaimed portrayal in Philadelphia of Liza Elliott, a Lawrence role, in a revival of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's "Lady in the Dark." It was the latest stage venture in a career that also has included a number of film roles.
This engagement marks Marcovicci's 14th season at the Algonquin. She has made a habit of paying homage to stars of the past, and her previous subjects have included cabaret queen Mabel Mercer and torch singer Ruth Etting.
Playing Lawrence gives Marcovicci the chance to dress to the nines, as Gertie always did, in a slinky black gown under a silvery marabou wrap trimmed in mink. She opens the show with a quote from "Lady in the Dark" -- "If there's a party, I want to be the host of it; if I'm in town, I want to be the toast of it!" From then on it's all fun, games, and performance magic.
Marcovicci is all over the place, evening sitting in the lap of one male ringside listener. She strolls among her audience singing "Exactly Like You," by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh and singles out patrons to whom to deliver such songs as George Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" and Cole Porter's "How Could We Be Wrong." She can be frolicsome and naughty, especially in her rendition of "The Physician," Porter's song about body parts.
When she wants to be serious, she can hold her patrons in the palm of her hand, which is exactly what she did when singing "I'll See You Again," "Body and Soul," "Night and Day," and especially Weill's "My Ship." She is at her best in such upbeat songs as "I Whistle a Happy Tune" and "Getting To Know You" from "The King and I," rendering them with the optimistic jauntiness that was Lawrence's trademark.
She links the songs with a narrative account of how Lawrence made a name for herself in London revues before coming to Broadway in "Charlot's Revue" in 1924. She recreates her highly successful association with Coward, "her lover in every way but sex" (Lawrence was happily married to American stage producer Richard Aldrich). She gives examples of Lawrence's penchant for practical jokes and spending beyond her income.
Marcovicci reveals that Lawrence spotted English tutoress Anna Leonowens as a dramatic role when she read Margaret Landon's "Anna and the King of Siam," had her attorney option the novel for musical treatment, then persuaded Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to write the show for her. You leave this cabaret not only entertained, but more knowledgeable about show business history than when you arrived.
If, as another cabaret artist, David Staller, says, cabaret is the natural descendant of storytelling around the fire, then Marcovicci is the master storyteller of cabaret today and one that younger artists would do well to hear and adopt as a model. She is wonderfully supported in her work by a fine musician, Shelly Markham, who has just the right sparkling keyboard style for the songs of the Lawrence era.