Nellie McKay is a supreme stylist, with broad, substantial musical intelligence behind every single flourish. She combines heart-on-sleeve sincerity with supremely arch, dry wit; she’s utterly unique, her performance style multifarious and unpredictable, drawing ideas from extremely diverse eras and genres.
Her Cafe Carlyle debut, nuttily entitled “Nellie with a Z”, is as edgy as anything I’ve seen at that rarefied venue – she sings something about “motherfuckers” at one point – all the while displaying musical taste and restraint so impeccable you dare not take issue with her cabaret bona fides. It’s 100% a solo act, just Nellie in a sophisticated, spangled dress accompanying herself on piano, and exceptionally expressive, um, ukulele (I’d go so far as to call her a virtuoso of the uke).
She becomes one with the piano, placing a knowing distance between herself and the audience, forcing you to focus on the nuances of both the music and the lyrics. She dives deep into Johnny Mercer lyrics in “Midnight Sun” and “Skylark”, locating the ache in those songs and peering wistfully out from there. She even sings “Moon River” in Portuguese, giving that chestnut a tinge of bossa novaelegance and fatalism. Yup,bossa nova ukelele, that’s the kind of juxtaposition that McKay – and perhaps only McKay – has the chops to do, without a hint of irony.
She raps about bigots at Sochi (“something for you whippersnappers” she quips), and dedicates a song to her “arch-nemesis Barbara Cook”. These are part of a lightly-worn conceit that she is “the world’s oldest cabaret artist”; she even uses a prop cane to add detail to this character.
McKay’s a highly individual talent, with wildly crazy creativity to match her razor-like interpretive ability. She’s a true original, and it’s an exceptional pleasure to hear her in such an intimate setting.
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To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.