New York — AS she autographed copies of her CDs recently in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, Maude Maggart didn't see the woman who was staring at her intensely, like a stalker. With a knowing smile, the woman finally walked away.
"She looks just like her sister," she whispered to a friend. "They're so alike."
The reference was to songwriter Fiona Apple, Maggart's younger sibling, and the two performers do have a similar appearance. But all comparisons end there.
Maggart is one of the hottest young stars in the world of cabaret music, and an artist who has taken a decidedly different path than Apple. At a time when the popularity of the Great American Songbook is growing -- but small cabarets in New York, Los Angeles and other cities are facing an economic pinch -- Maggart has gained a passionate following with music that is more highbrow than mass market.
Unlike her sister, a triple-platinum star who writes her own material and sells out concert arenas, Maggart has devoted herself to the rich legacy of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and other masters of classic popular song.
"I'm very much at home with this music, because even though it's outwardly simple, there's tremendous complexity built into the songs," Maggart said. "It feels like I was born to sing them, and I'm lucky to have discovered this early on."
In less than five years, she has made her mark. Maggart won the Time Out New York award last year for special achievement, and was featured on the cover of the publication's cabaret issue. The magazine, echoing the sentiments of many critics, called her a "wondrous young chanteuse ... the darling of the cabaret world."
It may seem unusual in this day and age for a young performer with talent and ambition to embrace a musical tradition that is at least 80 years old -- to choose the martini over the mosh pit. But Maggart, 30, was seduced long ago.
"Part of the appeal of this music is the fact that it is almost a secret," she said earlier this month, on a day off from her three-week gig at the venerable Oak Room in the Algonquin. "It's not heavily promoted. There are no cabaret videos out there.
"There are no billboards with our faces on it," she added. "It's really just you as a performer and the audience. You're emotionally naked in front of them, and they're only 10 feet away from you in a small room. It's high art if it's done the right way."
So far, critics believe Maggart is doing it the right way: She has received rave reviews for her current show, "Comes Love," which features a selection of classic love songs from the '30s and '40s. She'll be performing this material at the Gardenia Restaurant & Lounge in West Hollywood on Monday through Wednesday.
For fellow artists who have watched her grow, Maggart's rapid rise is less a surprise than a confirmation. Michael Feinstein and Andrea Marcovicci played key roles in the singer's emergence, and they reject the idea that cabaret is dying.
Indeed, they say that Maggart and other young performers have reinvigorated the tradition by bringing back rare songs and infusing them with a modern sensibility.
"My sister gives off tremendous heat during her performances, but she's not just saying, 'Hey, these songs are hip now,' " Apple said in a phone interview. "She's taking you back into the world of these songs and making them live once again."
During her shows, Maggart evokes characters from bygone eras: A flapper from the 1920s, a Depression-era crooner, the Black Dahlia as cabaret singer. She's a budding scholar, forever searching for new songs in archives and public libraries.
She's also stunning to look at, with intense blue eyes and long auburn hair that tumbles down her back. Standing on a podium in the Oak Room, she wears a simple but elegant black dress with a diamond brooch and high heels. From the first note, she casts a spell over people in their 20s and 30s as well as patrons in their 70s.
"I have such a feeling when I hear this girl sing," Marcovicci said. "When she lands a song the right way, with that amazing voice of hers, I sob from my bones."
Moving beyond clubs
THE small, rectangular room is hushed as Maggart opens with a sensuous version of "Deep Purple." The pace picks up with an alternately chaste and racy take on "Coffee in the Morning, Kisses in the Night." She ends with a rousing "Hooray for Love."
Maggart performs -- and records -- with spare accompaniment: usually a piano and a supporting violin or woodwind. Occasionally she'll break out a ukulele to sing a song such as Berlin's "What'll I Do?" But the focus is almost entirely on her.
People are close enough to touch her; they can see every arched eyebrow, hear every sigh between the lyrics. Minutes after the show ends, Maggart appears in the lobby, shaking hands and signing autographs. She embraces audience members who tell her they were greatly moved by the performance and seem badly in need of a hug.