“I Want To Live!” – West Coast Tour

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A Review of “I Want To Live!” at Hollywood’s fabulous Catalina Jazz Club!
By Tony Gieske

Photos by Tony Gieske

It’s a Churchillian task to write about Nellie McKay‘s performance Saturday at Catalina’s. There she stood in all her Debbie Reynolds-ness, offering a figurative “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” among other exudations, in a skit that rivalled the works of Imogene Coca, Fran Leibowitz, Dorothy Parker, Fran Landesman or Alice Ghostley, with a hint of Alexander Pope heard now and then. It was the stuff of history.

The McKay voice is a knife edged with honey. Which is good, because the words she writes are razor sharp beneath a homespun mantle.

When life’s impossible
Hold tight beneath the underdog
That’s where I’m comfortable

She often tackles a lyric in a style that is positively cubist. From “There You Are in Me”:

Uptight, upright, long nights, furious
Darwin asked “You Got The Money?”
Big cry, big guy, fish eye curious
Can this be my home?

After draining this proto-Lotte Lenya vein, she taps into “Some Other Spring,” a melancholy standard we all know from Billie Holiday’s version, and draws a bit of heart’s blood with it.

Some other spring
I’ll try to love
Now I still cling
To faded blossoms

Using her splendid little backup band — “they can play anything and they’re natural criminals, too,” she says — McKay then got into surrealism on “I Only Have Eyes for You,” with the tenor man uttering penetrating cries like an unhappy infant for no apparent reason.

And she took a ricocheting shot at feminism with one of her better-known numbers, “Mother of Pearl”:

Feminists don’t have a sense of humor
Feminists just want to be alone (boo-hoo)
Feminists spread vicious lies and rumor
They have a tumor on their funny bone

The evening as a whole, we were told, constituted McKay’s demented version of “I Want to Live,” the biopic for which Susan Hayward won an Oscar. The flick was about Barbara Graham, the forgotten murderess — steady there, feminists — who became in 1955 the third woman to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin.

So, to conclude her wacky parody, McKay seated herself in the fatal chair, put on a pale green blindfold, and got a laugh when she said: “I don’t want to see them stare at me.” The musicians struck up a hissing sound and she rolled her head back and forth, depicting death throes. Gotta say she’ll do anything for a laugh.

And among all her anythings, such as imitating Tom Waits or portraying a chicken being hauled to market inside a crate, she played piano rather deftly with her own prodigious little fingers, a feat that Winston Churchill never managed.