Review: ‘Nellie McKay’

Nellie McKay

Nellie McKay has evolved into a remarkably multifaceted performer.

When she emerged as a solo performer nearly a decade ago, Nellie McKay was hailed largely for her eccentricities. While those charming quirks are still present in abundance, they’re not the be-all and end-all of her persona, which has evolved into a remarkably multifaceted performer capable of holding her own on Broadway (as she did in her turn in “The Threepenny Opera”), film and the political stage.

At this, her first lengthy cabaret run in her hometown, the singer drew heavily — though not exclusively — on material from her most recent release, “Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day.” McKay shares a great deal of common ground with the elder singer — a blend of innocence and incisiveness, winsomeness and whip-smartness and an over-riding commitment to animal-rights activism — making the match a no-brainer.

McKay treated the tunes from that album with care but refrained from preserving them in aspic. Her take on “Mean to Me” retained the wide-eyed quaver of the original but also added a note of steeliness, while the Bob Dorough arrangement of “Close Your Eyes” suffused the song with a compelling breathlessness. Most intriguing of all was her take on “Black Hills of Dakota” — culled from the 1953 western “Calamity Jane” — that employed sparse tribal drumming to transform the piece into a kind of Native American lament.

McKay also dipped into her own songwriting catalog for a passel of selections that showed the breadth of her scope, from the wryly ironic feminism of “Mother of Pearl” to the literal puppy love of “Dog Song.” To her credit, she neither oversold nor downplayed the socially conscious bent of songs like the antigentrification tract “Bodega,” simply allowing the sharp message and salsa-tinged rhythm to speak for themselves.

While she certainly didn’t submerge her personality in the process — her guileless tone suffused everything from a solo ukulele take on “Georgy Girl” to a kicky “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” — McKay always seemed to be steering the audience to appreciate her songs, and not her. And in this era of diva-dom, that’s a rare trick to pull off.

Nellie McKay

Feinstein's at the Regency; 140 capacity; $88 top

Production

Presented inhouse. Musicians: Nellie McKay, Glenn Drewes, Jay Berliner, Belinda Whitney, Kenny Davis, Ben Bynum. Opened and reviewed June 1, 2010. Closing June 12.
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