Nellie McKay

June 7, 2010

“Normal as Blueberry Pie – A Tribute to Doris Day” 

Feinstein’s at Loews Regency  –  June 1 – 12

Just wondering. Why, exactly did Nellie McKay choose to salute Doris Day? Many, not all, of the songs she’s doing are identified with Doris Day, but McKay never explains why she chose them. Was she influenced by the legendary singer/actress? Was she inspired by the era, the films, the spirit, the warmth? McKay has previously said that she admires Day’s talent, yet she doesn’t talk about this in her show, which is called, after all, “…A Tribute to Doris Day.” Just wondering.

That aside, singer, pianist and songwriter Nellie McKay is entertaining doing her unique thing, and I always look forward to seeing her. She seems like an amalgam of today and yesterday, pretty and blonde as a sunny afternoon, looking as innocent and ebullient as Doris Day in her Romance on the High Seas era. She is also as familiar as any Manhattan West Side girl taking her “adopted” pit bulls for a walk through Central Park.

There is a retro prom night aura about the evening, enhanced by McKay’s aquamarine chiffon gown and gold ballet slippers, flowingly feminine but not really hip. She suggests mixed visions of either a coed dancing under flickering lights to “Sentimental Journey” or a big band songbird crooning the tunes in an even, phlegmatic dance pace. This prom motif remains as McKay moves in front of the piano to deliver a woebegone “Mean to Me” (Fred E. Ahlert and Roy Turk), as if her date were dancing with someone else. She is endearingly goofy in her disjointed dance to Hal Borne and Johnny Mercer’s “Dig It.”

Nellie McKay, however, is far from goofy. She is sophisticated and shrewd, knowing exactly what she wants to portray in her off-handed, sprightly manner. She has a mischievous quirkiness that stamps her individuality. Singing her own sardonically conservative “Mother of Pearl,” she adds with a grin, “My name is Sarah Palin and I approve this message.” When she turns from piano to ukulele, it is not to pluck a Hawaiian or flapper tune, but to perform her Latino “Bodega.”

Multitalented, McKay writes jazzy arrangements, linking into rhythms from Brazil to New Orleans in “The Black Hills of Dakota” (Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster), a meditative tune from the film Calamity Jane. In her waltz from South Pacific, “A Wonderful Guy,” with the line “I’m as normal as blueberry pie,” the band behind her delivers a contrast of rhythms. This is a strong, versatile backup: Kenny Davis on bass, Jay Berliner on guitar, and Glenn Drews on trumpet; Ben Bynum on percussion provides a xylophone backup for Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You” and violinist Belinda Whitney delivers an evocative accompaniment to Ruth Lowe’s “I’ll Never Smile Again.”

Her voice is delicate, vocal lines ending with a fluttery vibrato, poignant in “P.S. I Love You” (Gordon Jenkins and Johnny Mercer). Adding stronger tremolo, she gives a nod to Kitty Carlyle with a stylized “Lullaby of the Leaves” (Bernice Petkere and Joe Young). Her notes dip down to a wistful, Billie Holiday reverie in “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” (Louis Alter and Eddie DeLange). Enthusiastically, she swings “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (Ella Fitzgerald with Al Feldman), smoothly channeling hints of Fitzgerald. She ends all her songs with a jerky Shirley Temple bow.

Whether performing McKay originals, like “The Dog Song” and “Caribbean Tim,” or tunes from Doris Day’s repertoire, like “Do, Do Do” (George and Ira Gershwin) and Vincent Youmans/Irving Caesar’s vivacious “I Want to Be Happy,” Nellie McKay is an engaging talent. It would just have been satisfying to hear more about her connection with Doris Day since this is a tribute. But maybe that’s just being picky.


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