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by Jerry Tallmer

The most beautiful woman ever to wear a top hat was Marlene Dietrich. Or maybe not. Maybe Andrea Marcovicci is the most beautiful woman ever to wear a top hat. You can check this out by taking in "Andrea Sings Astaire," nightly in the Oak Room of the Algonquin through December 20.

And it's not just those God-given cheekbones, etc. It's the God-given talent, taste, joie de vivre, delicate strength of voice, and God-given brains. The thinking man's (and woman's) singer, I once wrote of her, and her thinking in this year of her 17th appearance at the Algonquin has turned to Fred Astaire. "What's so amazing about Fred Astaire," she said over a cup of morning coffee last week -- the morning the first rave review had appeared --- "is that people say: 'Wasn't he a dancer? Why do a whole show on him as a singer?' "Well, he was one of the finest singers we've ever had. All composers wanted him to introduce their songs, and I think you could argue that he did introduce more popular songs than anybody else, ever."

Here at the Oak Room and widely elsewhere Andrea Marcovicci has done shows on female singers (Gertrude Lawrence, Mabel Mercer, Ruth Etting), on composers (Berlin, Kern, Coward, Porter, Loesser), and on themes (World War II, the Movies, and "Our Songs, 1965-'85"), but never before on male singers. "To me," she said, "Fred Astaire is so other-worldly and unimaginable. He is all things to me: Not just a male singer but an icon. "What I've discovered is that he was ego-less in his singing. Had an ego-less devotion to the tune as written -- which was very pleasing to composers, as you can imagine. No frills. No tricks. Just a very true, honest delivery. "I figured this out when I went to study the sheet music while listening to him sing. He followed the score exactly, and being from the Midwest, from Omaha, Nebraska, his vowel sounds were very round. 'I knooooow,' not 'I nuh.' "

Astaire's No. 1 partner, both in dance and song, was, of course, Ginger Rogers. "One of the revelatory findings [of that research] is that she sang like him -- exactly! She too is ego-less in copying him, note for note, and she too --- from Independence, Missouri --- has a Midwest voice. Jane Powell, for instance, whom he also sang with, is practically an opera singer, while Judy --- well, you can't blend in Judy." What Ms. Marcovicci has done, as is her wont, is couple or triple in discrete groups certain songs that seem, for one reason or another, to go together. " 'A Foggy Day,' for example, with 'Isn't It a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain,' with 'This Heart of Mine' --- all three about increasingly falling in love. Or, later on, 'They Can't Take That Away From Me' followed by 'It's a Quarter to Three . . . one for my baby . . . " Does she have a favorite Astaire-Rogers movie? "Yes, 'Top Hat.' Because of 'Cheek to Cheek.' That feathered dress of Ginger's made a particular impact on me." Do you have one of your own? "I do --- a feathered dress and a feathered stole, as a tribute to Ginger." You know, Andrea, she was a lifelong Republican. "The noive," said Manhattan-born Californian Andrea Marcovicci. "Also a Christian Scientist --- an avid Christian Scientist."

Andrea doesn't remember when she was first exposed to Fred Astaire. "I always knew him. My parents used to take me to [motion-picture] revival houses like the Thalia, and my brother and I also had Million Dollar Movie [on TV], where they'd run the same film seven times in one week. So I was besotted with Fred Astaire." Joining Andrea in song Thanksgiving night at the Algonquin will be her mother, onetime model, onetime cafe torch-singer Helen Stuart. Helen Stuart's husband --- Andrea's father --- the late Dr. Eugene Marcovicci, internist, born 1885 in Romania, was dubbed "The Waltzing Doctor" when he arrived here from Vienna in the 1940s. "That makes my father born in the century before the last century! Whenever they went out dancing -- I was around 10 -- the band would break into a waltz as my parents entered the room." This Fred Astaire show, she says, "is on its way to being a two-act theater piece to open in California in March, and hopefully tour the country, and then be a DVD. When I leave the Algonquin I go on tour in huge spaces; this is the only small venue I do." She is backed by Shelley Markham --- "here and everywhere" --- at the piano, and Jered Egan on bass.

"Last night somebody used the word 'lilt' in connection with Fred Astaire. And I think I share that with him. A lilt that makes you happy. You can't transcribe that for any other word. Talking to a 9-year-old, you say: 'It just means LILT. Not tilt. Not lit. Just lilt." The 9-year-old is Alice Reichert -- "Alice for my father's sister and my husband's grandmother" --- and Andrea's husband is Daniel Reichert, actor, also entrepreneur of vintagecocktails.com. "I'm very grateful for all this," says the exquisite woman who lays claim to having been "through some tough times. If we just stay alive long enough, and take the good with the bad. That's our choice . . . if we stay alive . . . right?"

Joseph Papp, creator of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater -- one of the most alive persons of our time, but dead too grievously and too soon --- once, as he was pacing his office on Lafayette Street, this man whose god was William Shakespeare, suddenly broke stride and said: "Do you know who I think was the greatest all-round entertainer we've ever had in this country? Fred Astaire." There were so many choices of songs sung by Fred Astaire "that it was difficult to put this show together," says singer/raconteur Marcovicci. "The ones people don't think of. All those little songs like 'I've Got Beginner's Luck' and 'Color Bllnd' and 'I've Got My Eyes on You' and 'I'm Building Up to an Awful Letdown' and 'I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket . . .I'm betting everything I have on you . . . ' "Around fifty of those had to go." You can put all your eggs in the one big beautiful basket of what remains. [Tallmer]

Courtesy The Villager

ANDREA SINGS ASTAIRE. Through December 20 in the Oak Room of the Hotel Algonquin, 59 West 44th Street, (212) 840-6800.

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