Nellie McKay is definitely not your mother’s cabaret performer. In my case, in fact, she’s more like my goddaughter’s cabaret performer. A charming, uninhibited singer/songwriter, Ms. McKay puts the “id” in idiosyncratic. Her show has an “I’m making this up as I go along” quality because, for the most part, that’s exactly what she’s doing. The show my wife and I saw on the second of her two nights at the Kranzberg Center here in St. Louis [November 19, 2009] was, so my elves tell me, very different from the one she did on the first.
In an older and more experienced performer, that might come across as contempt for the audience. Ms. McKay, however, is so genuine and unaffected, so enthusiastic about her material, and so willing to share that enthusiasm with us that – at least the night we saw her – everyone appeared willing to go along with the ride through her musical Fun House.
It helps that she has genuine talent. Her voice is a flexible and accurate jazz singer’s instrument which she employs to great effect in numbers like “A-Tisket a-Tasket” (where she seems to actually be channeling the late Ella Fitzgerald at times) and the Gershwin classic “Do Do Do”. She’s also a respectable pianist and is able to use a ukulele for something other than simple strummed chords. In Jobim’s “Meditation”, for example, her delicate touch turns the often-maligned instrument’s sound into delicate filigree for the Brazilian classic.
That song was one of several numbers drawn from Ms. McKay’s latest CD (and, in appropriately retro fashion, vinyl LP) Normal as Blueberry Pie – A Tribute to Doris Day. A great admirer of the legendary singer’s upbeat approach to life, Ms. McKay shares both her love of the Great American Songbook and her “communion with nature and animals, and common civility”. Not surprisingly, then, the evening included Day classics such as Bacharach’s “Send Me No Flowers” (from the 1964 film of the same name, her third with Rock Hudson) and “Sentimental Journey” (her first big hit with the Les Brown band in 1945) as well as some delightful McKay originals that demonstrated that shared love of animals.
I mean, really: how can you not love someone who could write pet-friendly numbers like Pounce” (“I’m gonna pounce, pounce, pounce [meow] like a pussy cat”) and “The Dog Song”, which comes complete with two pairs of pants.
[A slight pause while we reflect on the sheer cheapness of that joke.]
If the essence of cabaret is the revelation of the individual performer’s personality through music, I’d have to say that Ms. McKay’s show is essential cabaret. From the opening number – “The Very Thought of You” sung to percussionist Ben Bynum’s solo glockenspiel – to the jazzy final performance of “Crazy Rhythm”, her show was quintessentially Nellie McKay. It was, far as I could tell, a pure expression of who and what she is in all her eccentric, cheerful, self-effacing and often very funny glory – a reminder that she made her bones as a stand-up comic before getting visibility as a singer/songwriter.
Speaking of the talented Mr. Bynum, he deserves something of an accompanist’s Purple Heart for keeping up with Ms. McKay’s peripatetic peregrinations through the evening, including her attempt to lead the audience through “Young at Heart” (which only around six of us knew, as far as I could tell). True, she lost him completely during the last-minute “St. Louis” medley while working her way from Kerry Mills and Andrew Sterling’s “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis” to “You Came a Long Way from St. Louis”, but by then there had been so much good-natured give and take between them that the confusion became just another part of the entertainment.
How long that approach to the art of cabaret will work for Ms. McKay is, I think, an unknown. Her impressive credentials not withstanding she is, in her late twenties, still in the early stages of what is likely to be a long career. A degree of giddiness that is acceptable and even pleasant in a young performer won’t necessarily work as well as that performer ages. It will be interesting to see where Ms. McKay’s unique style takes her in the coming years. I know I’ll be watching; you should as well.
To find out where Ms. McKay will be appearing next, surf on over to here official web site at nelliemckay.com or check out the unofficial fan pages at nelliemckay.org and nelliemckay.net. You can also find information there on her four albums, at least some of which I am now strongly tempted to buy.
The 2009 Cabaret St. Louis season at the Kranzberg Center closes December 9th through 12th with an appearance by Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart. For details, call 314-534-1111 or visit the web site, cabaretstl.org.