Nellie McKay is a highly individual talent, a supreme stylist, with wild, crazy creativity and substantial musical intelligence to match her razor-like interpretive ability. To mark the 50th anniversary of the book Silent Spring – the first major expose of pesticides in the environment – McKay has put together a special show about its author Rachel Carson, the trailblazing environmentalist.
The key word in that last sentence is “special” – this is cabaret as only Nellie McKay could do it. She does the entire act while literally playing the role of Rachel Carson, right down to period-accurate costumes and props. And period-accurate music and speaking styles as well. I’ve noticed her perfectionist sense of history before, but it has never been on as complete display as it is in this act.
She also knows when to break out of time and place to make a point. She performs Neil Young’s 1970 song “Ohio” while enacting Carson’s study of the effects of pesticides on birds in the 1950s. Through using the anachronistic song, McKay subtly makes the point that Carson was way ahead of her time. And the musicianship is beyond reproach – there are occasional off-key harmonies, but those are also clearly stylistic choices as well.
The act is so complex, in fact, that it seems decidedly under-rehearsed. This is experimental performance art meeting high society cabaret, and is very much a case of immensely talented people stretching their abilities to their limits. That it is as swimmingly successful as it is, is no small achievement.
McKay’s combination of irony and heart-on-sleeve sincerity is utterly unique, her performance style multifarious and unpredictable. She’s a true original, and it’s an exceptional pleasure to see and hear her take such exciting risks in such an intimate setting.
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