Jeanne Marino says she never really craved the spotlight. She was content as a nurturer of musical talent, teaching piano and voice at the music studio she and husband, Mark, run from their home in Massapequa.
Then, two years ago, Marino's life became a cabaret. With encouragement from her mentor and best friend, vocal coach and musician Madeline Kole, Marino stepped out of the background and into the spotlight by performing at Grasso's restaurant in Cold Spring Harbor.
"It was like a bad out-of-body experience," says Marino, describing what it was like taking the stage for the first time. "I was really nervous, but it was all friends and family in the audience, and I have such a great band, that I knew no matter what happened, they would sound great."
As it turned out, Marino also sounded great. She's not on a regular circuit, yet, but she'll be performing her show, "Life Is a Cabernet," on Oct. 9 at Casablanca Cafe in Lynbrook. It's a blend of standards, song parodies and adult-rated comic patter tied to a drinking theme. On Dec. 2, she'll do a holiday show, "A Very Merry Meltdown," when she returns to Grasso's.
Even more gratifying is that she's starting to develop a following beyond family and friends. Grasso's owner, Gail Grasso, says, "I've gotten great feedback from customers that just came in, not even knowing that her show was going on that night. They praised it."
Her musical background
It was probably inevitable that Marino, 59, who grew up in the home where she now lives, would end up teaching music and performing. Her grandmother ran a music studio in Rockville Centre, and Marino's mother was a pianist, so music was the family business.
"It was always classical music. There was not a piece of sheet music in our house," Marino says.
She starting taking piano lessons when she was 7 and joined the chorus in high school. Marino studied piano and choral concentration at SUNY Fredonia and had planned to teach, but substitute teaching jobs were all that seemed to come her way, so she ended up giving private lessons.
In 1990, she married Mark Marino and they opened their studio, MM Music. It's a family affair. Mark teaches piano and guitar, and their son Alfred, 22, teaches piano, guitar and violin.
Even with her musical background, Marino never envisioned herself as a performer. Then, a few years ago, she began to notice some hoarseness in her voice that was causing difficulty with her teaching. She turned to Kole for lessons. Kole, of Amityville, started her with vocal exercises and had Marino work her way up to popular songs, referred to in the industry as standards.
Then Kole, who is also a frequent performer at Grasso's with her husband, Richie Iacona, suggested Marino do a cabaret show that would combine Marino's way with a song and her knack for storytelling.
"I compare her, in a way, to Victor Borge," says Kole, referring to the late Danish pianist and comedian. "She's funny and she can tell stories that are punctuated by a song here and there."
The two brainstormed ideas for mounting the show and came up with the title, "Welcome to My Midlife Crisis," which played off Marino's fear about being onstage. "We throw ideas back and forth," Marino says. "Madeline will have an idea for a concept and I'll write the specifics for it."
Marino admits she was a little shaky on her first couple of songs during her inaugural performance, but once she started bantering with the audience, the nerves began melting away. Several of her parodies were about people in the crowd, including "Talia the Lawya," a takeoff on "Copacabana." Her daughter, Talia Harari, 30, is an attorney in Manhattan.
"I'm not shy to talk, but I was more shy to perform," Marino says. "Once the audience started to laugh, I was good." It also helped having friends on stage -- Kole, 59, on bass guitar, Iacona, 66, on piano, and Kenny Hassler, 59, a drummer from Lindenhurst.
Feeling at ease before an audience was a revelation to Marino, and her obvious comfort level was also an eye-opener for her husband, who regularly performs with his guitar at Grasso's and the Garage Restaurant in Manhattan.
"I hadn't been to a lot of the rehearsals, so when I saw her for the first time, it was amazing," says Mark Marino, 56, who also teaches jazz guitar at LIU Post in Brookville. "She surprised me. Not with the singing -- I knew she could sing -- but with talking to an audience. She was really funny."
Not that the show is only about getting laughs. Marino says that when she performed "How Deep Is the Ocean" with her son, "He played guitar, and I sang, and people cried."
Another night, Marino and her husband did their take on the Maurice Chevalier-Hermione Gingold number, "I Remember It Well" from the 1958 movie "Gigi." Marino says, "Mark doesn't sing, but he sang that time, and it was cute."
Despite the success of her first show, Marino didn't do an encore at Grasso's until August 2013, largely, she says, because performing didn't fit in neatly with her teaching schedule. Rehearsing and writing material can be time-consuming, she says. When asked how much she gets paid for a gig, Marino jokes, "not enough," though she does get dinner in addition to a nominal fee for performing.
"Of course, if I was playing at a theater I could charge more," she says. "But this has been a labor of love."
Kole encouraged her to put together another show, and now Marino has played Grasso's four times.
Mickey Bertucci, the owner of Casablanca Cafe, has been a regular at all of Marino's shows. They were pals in college, where he was a DJ at the school's radio station, and they reconnected a few years ago on Facebook.
"It was just a natural thing with her," says Bertucci of Marino's way with music. "She can spin a humorous anecdote or a story into a beautiful song."
He invited Marino to perform next month at his restaurant and requested that she reprise "Life Is a Cabernet," with a few tweaks. "She's going to customize it for us," says Bertucci, 61, of Cedarhurst. "She's going to do a song about me to 'Play That Funky Music White Boy.' "
After Marino performs in Lynbrook and Cold Spring Harbor, Kole would like to see her move on to a bigger stage. "I would love to see her do concerts or warm up the audience for a big star," Kole says.
The idea also appeals to Marino, who no longer has the slightest fear of being in front of a crowd. "That would be ideal, to open for a big name," she says. "I'd love to open for someone who already has a following. They would supply the crowd and could discover me."
COME TO THE CABARET
Jeanne Marino and her band will be performing a couple of shows before the end of the year.
When | Where 8 p.m. Oct. 9, 79 Atlantic Ave., Lynbrook
Info 516-472-0404, bistrocasablanca.com
When | Where 8 p.m. Dec. 2, 134 Main St., Cold Spring Harbor
Info 631-367-6060, grassosrestaurant.com