By Steve Murray, Cabaret Scenes
Oh the joy of entering a show unawares and being dazzled and surprised. Nellie McKay’s latest project, a musical descent into the film noir world of Susan Hayward’s Oscar winning performance as condemned murderess Barbara Graham, is a brilliantly conceived and executed cabaret spectacular unlike any show you have or will see. Think Kurt Weil meets Grand Guignol, meets apple-pie Doris Day gone wrong. McKay, a gifted singer, songwriter, actress, musician and satirist, won a Theatre World Award for her portrayal of Polly Peachum in the Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera, so she’s no stranger to social activism and a touch of the absurd.
Working her way chronologically through the life of Graham, McKay weaves her song selections brilliantly, reflecting on the optimistic girl gone horribly bad, doomed by her choices to die in the gas chamber. Using pre-recorded voice-overs and her band mates as dramatic foils, “I Want To Live” is at times zany, aburd, ironic and always astute in its observations on social injustices and seedy underside of abused women. Her klezmer-like original song ‘Please’ captures the down on your luck atmosphere that surrounded Grahams early years. A series of brighter side ditties (‘April Showers’, ‘They Say It’s Spring’ and ‘Isn’t It A Lovely Day’) are sung in a soft, fragile 40’s style reflecting the optimism of youth. But then a shift happens during the Billie Holiday hit ‘Some Other Spring’, full of crushed and damaged love. There’s a hilarious rendition of ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ sung to Graham’s baby while saxophonist Tivon Pennicott imitates the baby’s wailing cries.
Always in manic character, McKay/Graham is arrested (‘Call The Police’) and incarcerated. She and the band, now in jailhouse garb, go through the motions of prison life and The Beatle’s ‘I’m So Tired’ reflects their toil and mental drain. Another McKay original, ‘There You Are In Me’ sums up Graham’s sad existence eloquently – “No one ever loved me, Not at school and home was so sadistic, I don’t wanna be another fool another sad statistic, Everyone you know secures a wretched glow within your memory, Wipe their filthy toes upon the yearning of your mind”. The disappointment is made even more glaring with each last minute stay of execution only to end in the tragic, inevitable conclusion.
I’m not sure the audience was prepared for or understood McKay’s full intentions with this theatre piece. Half laughed heartily at the absurdism, but all sat rapt in attention at the spectacle. McKay is an amazing performer; quirky and brilliant, smart and adventurous. Her four song encore of original material (‘Beneath the Underdog’, ‘Toto Dies’, ‘I Wanna Get Married’) and a delightful version of South Pacific’s ‘I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy’, show her unique world vision, artistry and imagination.