Nellie McKay

Nellie McKay

Musical Instrument Museum Music Theatre, Phoenix, AZ, January 26, 2024

Reviewed by Lynn Timmons Edwards

Nellie McKay

Nellie McKay (pronounced Mc-eye) was new to me, but she’s not new to the cabaret world. She was last reviewed in Cabaret Scenes in 2018 for shows she performed in New York and San Francisco. David Byrne of the Wall Street Journal described her as an artist of “busker authenticity who subverts the genre” (of cabaret). Rolling Stone described her as “a renegade songwriter with an ultra-flexible Great American Songbook sensibility.” She described herself as an “anarchist,” which was my experience. She went from song to song, 26 in total, from the piano to the ukulele, with little sense of order or story patter to connect the dots. One Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) staffer described her to me as a cross between Doris Day and Eminem.

She opened her show with the Rodgers and Hart classic “My Romance.” Her voice is unpretentious. She sings primarily in her head voice, creating a young, ethereal tone. At times, she goes into chest voice for a sultry or dark effect and transitions flawlessly through her range with no breaks. She opted in most songs for short, quick phrasing, and her piano accompaniment often reminded me of a music box. She showed great dexterity on the keyboard, flying across the 88 keys to support her covers and her original songs. Unfortunately, the grand piano was fully open, and from my view, the lid prop cut right across her face. She performed four songs before she spoke to us, and then she rambled on about driving across the desert to Phoenix. She complained about $300-a-night hotel rooms in Palm Springs; she opted instead for a one-night rental in Blythe in a home with many cats.

MIM does not provide programs and she did not introduce or announce the titles of any of her songs. She released her first album of original work in 13 years in August of 2023, Hey Guys Watch This, and she performed a few of her new songs including “Driftin’” and “The Party Song.” Her lyrics are clever but they are light on character or story. “Make a Wish,” about a girl who wishes to be the first female Jeffrey Dahmer and run for president, was dark and driving, and it stuck with me.

There were few Great American Songbook classics, but she did sing “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” written in 1927 by Buddy DeSilva and Lew Brown (lyrics) with music by Ray Henderson. Her CD My Weekly Reader has mostly 1960s covers; from it she included Paul Simon’s “Red Rubber Ball”; the Crosby, Stills, and Nash classic “Wooden Ships”; and Herman’s Hermit’s “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.” Toward the end of her cabaret, she asked the audience to “give me an F; give me a U; give me a C; give me a K—what does it spell?” Then she sang a parody of the 1965 Country Joe and the Fish Woodstock anthem “Cheer/I Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” but she replaced “Vietnam” in the lyric she with “in Iran”; “Reds” became “Arabs.” It worked, but by then she had started to lose some of her audience.

McKay shared original songs from her double CD Get Away from Me: “Inner Peace” and “I Wanna Get Married.” The ukulele worked for “Don’t Fence Me In” (Cole Porter) and a few others, but I tired of it quickly. It would have been better had she been backed by a band as she is on her recordings.

I find McKay to be an acquired taste, but there were plenty of die-hard fans in the house, and once again, MIM and Andrew Walesch get kudos for the broad spectrum of performing artists that they present. According to Trip Advisor, MIM is now the number-one tourist destination in Phoenix. I am taking the advice of McKay’s closing song, Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive (Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer), and I cheer her talent and originality.

Lynn Timmons Edwards

Lynn writes and performs themed cabaret shows based on the songs of the Great American Songbook throughout Arizona. She has had three short plays produced in the Theatre Artists Studio Festival of Summer Shorts and is working on a full length play, "Fairy," based on the life of Mary Russell Ferrell Colton, a founder of the Museum of Northern Arizona. In addition to writing and singing, Lynn plays bridge and tennis and enjoys traveling with her husband and artistic companion, Bob. Born in Ohio, Lynn is a graduate of Denison University (BA), Arizona State University (MPA) and has lived in Arizona since 1977.