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“I Want to Live!” New York Times Review

December 3rd, 2011

Bringing Out the Bad Girl for Some Tough Times
By STEPHEN HOLDEN, New York Times

“Fresh out of reform school — Barbara Graham,” announced a booming voice to open Nellie McKay’s new show, “I Want to Live!,” on Tuesday evening at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency. Wearing a copper-colored dress whose tarnished glitter suggested crushed Christmas ornaments and flashing a bright artificial smile, Ms. McKay, bounced onto the stage like an animated package of pretty poison.

The show that followed was a brilliant, zany film-noir musical biography of Barbara Graham, a convicted murderer who was the third woman to die in the gas chamber in California (at San Quentin) in 1955. In the 1958 movie “I Want to Live!” Graham was played by Susan Hayward, whose performance won her an Academy Award for best actress.

Ms. McKay is, if anything, the opposite of Hayward, whose screen alter egos tended to be embattled, humorless victims, weighed down by heavy psychological baggage. With her curly blond hair, light sinuous voice, and sunshiny aura Ms. McKay is closer to Shirley Temple. Physically she seems typecast to play a not-so-innocent Little Red Riding Hood who might carry a pearl-handled dagger in her basket of goodies.

“I Want to Live!” combines Ms. McKay’s virtually unlimited gifts as a singer, songwriter, actress, pianist, ukulele player, mimic, satirist and comedian into a show that is much deeper than its surface might suggest. Directly or indirectly, the songs, which come from here and there and include three originals, address America’s post-crash economic woes with references to crime and the Great Depression.

In the most lighthearted way they evoke a heartless environment of social injustice in which people who fall through the cracks are invisible to everyone else. In the most pointed satiric shot Ms. McKay blithely carols Irving Berlin’s “Isn’t This a Lovely Day” while her drummer, Ben Bynum, ostentatiously simulates shooting heroin while she pretends not to notice.

A fragment of the Bobby McFerrin hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is heard twice. The sensibility that emerges is that of a champion of the underdog who editorializes through insinuation and juxtaposition.

Backing Ms. McKay is an excellent “hipster” quartet that softens Louis Jordan’s exuberant jive style into a slinkier pop-jazz sound, its subtlety exemplified by the tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott’s barely audible tonal brush strokes. Rounding out the group are Alexi David on bass and Cary Park on guitar.

The show’s final one-two punch is its death and resurrection coupling of “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life,” sung Jeanette MacDonald style, with a growled rendition of the Tom Waits song “Straight to the Top.” In a matter of minutes Ms. McKay transports you from heaven into hell. Or is the other way around? She makes both worlds irresistibly seductive.

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