BWW Review: IN THE COOL COOL COOL OF THE EVENING Shines a Light on Nancy McGraw at The Laurie Beechman Theatre
In a dazzling display of absolute artistry, Nancy McGraw has been demonstrating, to any smart and lucky individual who bought a ticket and showed up, exactly what a cabaret singer does and exactly what a cabaret show looks like. Whether the artist on stage is singing, dancing, telling jokes or doing magic, there is a structure, a format, a feeling that is essential to every nightclub act, and Ms. McGraw clearly knows what it is, because IN THE COOL COOL COOL OF THE EVENING is one of the most satisfying times an audience member could spend inside the darkened room at The Laurie Beechman Theatre or any other venue where people go to have an intimate connection with a performer. Ms. McGraw is not dancing or telling jokes, but she IS making magic by singing songs that pertain to the great Johnny Mercer. Any student of musical theater or The American Songbook will note that I did not say "songs with lyrics by Johnny Mercer" and that is because one of the songs McGraw sings was not penned by the writer of "Moon River" and "Come Rain or Come Shine," but which was a song that Mercer sang with Nat King Cole. Other than this song, "Save the Bones for Henry Jones," yes, all the songs in the show were written by Mr. Mercer, and Ms. McGraw and her director/musical director, the extraordinary Mark Nadler, must have had a heck of a time deciding which 19 songs to showcase, because Mercer's catalog is extensive and impressive. Equally impressive, though, are Nadler and McGraw's song choices and the breathtaking way in which these songs have been arranged to maximum enjoyment level, with medleys mashed-up to perfection, and solo showcased songs sublimely displayed in the palpable emotions of Nancy McGraw's skills.
And what skills they are.
Nancy Wilson used to say she was a song stylist, rather than a singer (a fact I recently acquired at one of Natalie Douglas' Tributes shows). Often people use phrases like 'song stylist' or 'song interpreter' to pay compliment to a singer who isn't much of a singer. Well, Nancy McGraw is definitely a singer, and Nancy McGraw is definitely a song interpreter. A picture of elegance in black velvet and much bling, this blonde, bubbling over with exuberance for a rowdy crowd of people, started the evening off with a bang by giving them one of Mercer's most complicated lyrics, In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening and then kept them rowdy with a full range of ballads, uptempos, and story songs, and all of them arranged in ways never heard before. It was like being at a tent revival, with members of the audience throwing their arms into the air, singing along, and screaming at the end of particularly spectacular numbers such as McGraw's epic performance of "Lazy Bones." The crowd could not get enough of her, and why not, since she had them eating out of her hand.
To be completely fair, though, Mark Nadler has hands, too. And hands, and hands, and hands. The man is a modern miracle of musical genius, a well of talent, a font of creativity, and he and Ms. McGraw have chemistry that can't be bought, stolen or made up. They are, clearly, in love with each other (platonically, natch) and with the pastime of performing together. He watches her like a hawk, allowing her free reign to go where she wants in the story of each song, and when they duet on uptempos, the fun factor is off the charts (Nadler can even shimmy while continuing to play with his left hand, and, yes, the audience was howling the whole time). One hopes that this is a musical partnership that never ends because it is a joy to the ears and the eyes.
What makes Nancy McGraw so special is that she is with her audience, every step of the way. She and Nadler have created an entertainment that showcases Mercer's work and even shares some fascinating trivia about his life, but never once does McGraw place a barrier between her and her guests. While she does talk about Mercer, she also applies his work to her own life experiences, giving the people a chance to know her better. Using dialogue that is so enchanting as to be frozen poetry hanging about her, like the gemstones around her neck, Ms. McGraw opens a door into her world, making her performance personal -- She shares Mercer and McGraw with her audience, creating a love connection, essential in the intimacy of a cabaret room. While listening to her describe Southern parties from another time in her life, one is reminded of the great Southern Belles of the arts, like Blanche DuBois or Julia Sugarbaker. Never self-conscious and always unwavering, Nancy McGraw makes not one false move. She has an exquisite script and she knows all her words, words that don't sound over practiced or by rote. She is well-rehearsed and in her element, which is greatly valued and much appreciated. Many times in the recent past I have attended shows where artists had their script or their songs on a music stand in front of them, or on the piano top, reading them during their performance. On occasions I have witnessed performers singing while reading their lyrics off of their phone, or off of lead sheets that they carry with them. I get it. It happens to everyone. We get flustered, we forget our words, we need a little help. But the moment you look down at your cheat sheet, you've lost your audience, even if only for a moment - it's a risk all nightclub performers should avoid, even if it means not singing that song this time around. None of this was a problem for Nancy McGraw, though, because she knew every word of her show, as naturally as though she were breathing. There was nary a cheat sheet in sight, and it has to be said: Johnny Mercer lyrics are hard. "On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe?" Really? "Frasier?" Yeah. Every. Single. Word. Spot on, precisely performed, lovingly delivered to an audience that she, clearly, respects enough to give them the good stuff. Gold star, blue ribbon, a trophy, and a medal, that's what Nancy McGraw has in my book because she is solid gold good at her craft, and that doesn't come along every day. When it does, as the saying goes, attention must be paid.
Attention has been paid.
Then, Nancy, don't get off the stage.
Photos by Stephen Mosher