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Cabaret Review: "Nellie McKay"

by Jonathan Warman

It’s not very often that a singer performing at Feinstein’s does their own immaculate jazz arrangements and also plays distinctive jazz piano – and very expressive, um, ukulele. Okay, so this is the first time I’ve seen it. Nellie McKay is a highly individual talent, with wildly crazy creativity to match her razor-like interpretive ability.

Her underlying gifts as singer and pianist are solid but essentially modest; it’s what she does with these instruments, and the taste with which she does it, that’s so impressive. She is a supreme stylist, with broad, substantial musical intelligence to back it up. Her combination of irony and heart-on-sleeve sincerity is utterly unique, her performance style multifarious and unpredictable, drawing ideas from extremely diverse eras and genres.

So you can imagine that her tribute to Doris Day gleefully alternates totally authentic and heartfelt recreations of Doris’s repertoire with startlingly original interpretations that pick up on, for example, an oddly colonialist strain in Day’s songs. For example, her take on “Black Hills of Dakota” is musically very simple, but works stylistically on several levels. If you don’t know anything about the Black Hills, her lightly melancholy interpretation is just ear-pleasing.

But if you know that Wounded Knee—one of the most deeply symbolic places in Native American history (site of an 1890 massacre and a 1973 protest)—is in those Dakota Black Hills, it takes on a much deeper meaning, one that moved me personally to the edge of tears. McKay is clearly aware of all of the layers at work, and navigates through them with great skill. Her sincere “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” is every bit as poignant, as are equally sincere tributes to Lynn Redgrave (“Georgy Girl”) and Kitty Carlisle Hart (“Lullaby of the Leaves”).

McKay has expressed admiration in the New York Times for Day’s “warmth and feeling,” and there’s plenty of that here, too. Sunny interpretations of Day’s bigger hits like “Sentimental Journey” and “I Want to Be Happy” are great fun, and Nellie’s own nutty appeal is on ample display in an absurd(ist) dance routine to “Dig It”. McKay does a clutch of her own songs as well, opening up vocally on “Mother of Pearl”, “Bodega” and “The Dog Song”. She’s a true original, and it’s an exceptional pleasure to hear her in such an intimate setting.

For tickets, click here.

For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see dramaqueennyc.blog.


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