For more than a quarter century, cabaret star Andrea Marcovicci has been bringing the great American art song — and related fare — to audiences around the world.
Her travels have been "sweet and bitter," she says, and she'll bring the show that contemplates those journeys here for the first time, starting July 16 at Davenport's, on North Milwaukee Avenue. Tunes such as "Let's Get Away From It All," "You Belong to Me" and "By Myself" reflect the thrill and loneliness of the traveling life, though Marcovicci hastens to note that her show "No Strings" emphasizes the upside, above all.
To Marcovicci, "No Strings" covers "the fun of travel and the energy of travel."
Yet whenever we depart, we leave something behind — all the more when you're a touring artist who, by dint of occupation, spends so much time away. The parting becomes more difficult when you're a parent.
In Marcovicci's case, her ex-husband became "Mr. Mom," as she once told me, meaning she knew their daughter was in "expert hands."
"I've always been excited when I left for the airport, but I always had a tug on my heart," she says today. "There was always the ache in my heart — missing her.
"And yet the love I've had for performance, and the devotion I've had to bringing my shows across the country and even to London and Australia and Paris and (other) places that I've been is just who I am."
Therein lies the bittersweet nature of travel for performers, who define themselves — and earn a living — by their art, which invariably takes them away from home. Considering Marcovicci's savvy as a song interpreter, it's reasonable to expect that her complex emotions about travel will bring multiple layers of meaning to the repertoire in "No Strings."
Certainly she has grappled with a great deal during these decades of touring.
Over time, "she stopped feeling guilty about being on the road," says pianist Shelly Markham, her longtime arranger and accompanist. "I think she learned how to do it by the time her little girl was 6 or 7. … I think the fact that she has raised such a great girl (who's now in college) is very important to her."
But family wasn't Marcovicci's only issue during her travels. For one thing, she learned that, like politics, all cabaret is local.
"She had been running at the Gardenia (in the Los Angeles area) for 21/2 years, … and she could do no wrong," says Markham of the early years of Marcovicci's cabaret career. "And it was a film show.
"And she took it to San Francisco, and they hated it. They just said: Too much obscure material, where's the stuff we're familiar with? And she and (a former accompanist) had to rewrite the show, and that's where she learned her important lesson.
"When we went to Barcelona … she had to learn a couple of songs in Catalan. You just have to do it. … In cabaret you're communicating."
Or trying to.
And then there's the precarious nature of cabaret itself, with a precious few venues across the country championing an art form that appeals to an ultra-sophisticated but slender segment of the listening public. In Chicago, great rooms such as the Gold Star Sardine Bar and Toulouse Cognac Bar have long since receded into memory, with Davenport's the primary oasis for the music here today.
In New York, Marcovicci enjoyed a long run in the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, a storied place that radiated tradition — until the music room closed in 2012, a victim of renovation and changing tastes.
The loss of the Oak Room "is profound, and it ripples," says Marcovicci. "I'm too emotional to be able to analyze it well. For me, it was home — for 25 years. And it established people instantly. If you played the Algonquin, you had a moniker, you had established yourself. It automatically gave you a reputation that you could carry through the country."
Even so, Marcovicci long ago made a name for herself, and not only through her cabaret work. Beguiling film appearances alongside Woody Allen and Zero Mostel in "The Front" (1976) and, more recently, in Henry Jaglom's "Irene in Time" (2009), as well work on TV shows such as "Murder, She Wrote" and "Trapper John, M.D." and various stage plays have affirmed her versatility.
But surely cabaret stands at the center of all this for her. The art form may play out in tiny rooms and scattered concert halls, but to those who have heard its message, it's indispensable.
"Cabaret will always be precious, it will always be fragile," Marcovicci told me a few years ago. "It's like a violin — it's a precious instrument.
"It's not an electric guitar, so it may not be the most popular instrument. But it's pure, it's rare, it's gorgeous, it's historic and it's divine, when used right."
Few artists approach it more knowingly than Marcovicci.
Andrea Marcovicci and Shelly Markham perform "No Strings" at 8 p.m. July 16 through 18, 7 and 9:30 p.m. July 19 and 7 p.m. July 20 at Davenport's, 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave.; $37-$42 plus two-drink minimum; 773-278-1830 or davenportspianobar.com.
More noteworthy cabaret
If anyone doubted Davenport's centrality to cabaret in Chicago, the next couple weeks will underscore the point.
Noted singer Lee Lessack will make a rare Chicago appearance, performing his show "From Manhattan to Paris" at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Davenport's. The repertory includes music of Stephen Sondheim, Charles Aznavour, Johnny Mercer and Ann Hampton Callaway. Admission is $25, plus two-drink minimum.
The superb singer-songwriter Amanda McBroom, who has been absent from Chicago's stages for too long, plays at 9 p.m. Friday. She brings her show "Let's Fall in Love," accompanied by the formidable Chicago pianist-arranger Beckie Menzie. Admission is $20, plus two-drink minimum.
And a Midwest Cabaret Conference Participants Showcase will start at 7 p.m. Sunday; admission is $10, plus two drink minimum.
To read more from Howard Reich, go to chicagotribune.com.