Show Review: Nellie McKay at Yoshi’s – San Francisco, 7/14/11

by Dakin Hardwick on July 15, 2011

Nellie McKay is a woman that is dead set on trying to surprise us. She is one of the few artists to find her records in the “Easy Listening” department of the record store with an explicit lyrics sticker on the cover, only to eventually put out an album of Doris Day covers. She recently made one of the most interesting moves of her career, a operetta  out the life of Barbara Graham, the 3rd woman to ever get sentenced to death in the state of California.

The show was interesting, primarily using classic pop songs to tell the story. She came out to her band doing a noir version of “Purple Haze,” with McKay playing the role of Graham. She blended that with Chick Webb’s “Swingin’ On The Reservation.” The rest of the first act was primarily spent showing the indulgences of Graham’s early life. She was a prostitute, a drug user, and a gambler. McKay told this tale primarily through song, and the portrayal was reminiscent of the 2001 film Blow. With a singular exception where a friend of hers of seen overdosing while McKay was dealing with a screaming baby (her drummer played the addict, her sax player portrayed to screaming baby), there was little sense of morality. It was pretty much all fun, singing and dancing. It was awfully intense to watch someone mime an overdose to the tune of Irving Berlin’s “It’s A Lovely Day.”

The 2nd act was a bit darker. It began with Graham standing trial, getting convicted, and getting gassed. The band switched into prison garb, and it was still cheeky, it was quite dark. She sang Rodgers & Hart’s “A Twinkle In Your Eye,” while adjusting to prison life, and The Beatles’ “I’m So Tired” for the execution. And the big finale is in hell, with the petite McKay wowing with a rendition of Tom Wait’s “Straight To The Top,” with her doing an extra campy Waits impersonation under a see of red lights. It almost felt like the end of Mr Toad’s Wild Ride, which is not a bad thing at all.

The show itself was fun, albeit the story got lost quite a bit. My colleague that came with me had no idea that what to expect of the show, and didn’t realize the story line until the end. It was pure entertainment, with a solid band, excellent arrangements, and McKay is a great actress. It just felt like the show itself needed to become a little more concise. It was billed as a musical comedy, and it certainly was energetic and funny, but I kind of wish that the show made a clearer point. I’m sure after some fine tuning, this will be a a great piece, but it’s not quite “there” yet.

She did a five song encore, covers of “Body & Soul” and “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” and the three lone McKay originals of the 90 minute show, “Mother Of Pearl,” “Ding Dong,” and a very silly, stretched out version of her ode to pet ownership “The Dog Song.”

As usual, McKay is always a treat to watch perform, and this show was no exception. This current project, dubbed “I Want To Live,” is, by far, her most challenging of a wide and varied career, and I can’t wait to see what it evolves into.

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