Courtenay Day

Taken By Surprise

Since surprise is such a welcome element in a cabaret act, it's nice to report that Courtenay Day is full of surprises. Out she comes looking like a cross between Debbie Reynolds and Sandy Duncan in a black outfit that's both demure and sexy. And then she starts singing in a voice sounding like a cross between Blossom Dearie and Bernadette Peters.

And you think, "This ought to be light and easy." For a while, it is. But before Day removes that black jacket and places it atop the piano Christopher Marlowe is expertly playing, she reveals a few tricks hidden up its sleeve. Most of them concern not keeping things light and easy. Without warning she's probing standards for values that no one else has found. She's singing the great Lorenz Hart- Richard Rodgers "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" and proving it isn't the happy boast of someone who's come to know love. It is, her delivery indicates, the self-lacerating confession of someone who has awakened to love just a little late. On to Stephen Sondheim and -- surprise, surprise -- she sings "Every Day a Little Death" with more pain than it may possibly have ever been sung. That the mood piece-the true instance of brilliance from "A Little Night Music," not "Send in the Clowns" -- is paired with the composer-lyricist's "Pretty Women" doesn't make a great deal of sense, but so be it. Having made drama of Sondheim, she keeps the atmosphere thick by molding Billy Barnes' "Something Cool" into a monologue that Tennessee Williams might have penned for Blanche Dubois.

Having built impressively on her strengths, Day could still attend to some weaknesses, most notably a limited vocal range. When she goes for low notes, it sometimes seems as if the floor has fallen out from under her voice; when she goes for anything high, she often gets shrill. This is more noticeable, however, on her new CD, Courtenay Day Live at Don't Tell Mama," than it is live at Don 't Tell Mama, where she'll be on Tuesdays through Aug. 8.