With his slicked-back hair, upturned nose and impish blue eyes, Steve Ross looks like Noel Coward crossed with a bit of Alfalfa. He sings better than both of them.
Ross has been a mainstay of the New York cabaret scene for 20 years. At the Cinegrill on Wednesday night (along with Putter Smith on bass), Ross embodied a certain Manhattan style of decades past. That style is both brittle and warm, sentimental and sophisticated. Ross plays and sings the songs of Kern and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, as well as some obscure and funny novelty songs, such as "Hungry Women" by Ager and Yellen.
In cabaret, style is almost everything. But scholarship is also essential. The best cabaret singers, from Michael Feinstein to Andrea Marcovicci, give their audiences the great songs of the past, but also their knowledge of those songs and of the people who wrote them. Cabaret scholarship (also known as patter) has to be imparted lightly and with elan. This is, after all, the scholarship of pleasure.
Ross's patter is elegant, amusing and wise. "The answers to all of life's great questions can be found in the popular songs of the '20s, '30s and '40s," he says, with confidence. It's a plausible theory.
* Steve Ross, the Cinegrill at the Hollywood Roosevelt, 7000 Hollywood Boulevard, tonight-Sunday, 8 p.m. $15 cover, two-drink minimum. (213) 466-7000. Running time: 90 minutes.