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BWW Review: Nellie McKay Misses Her Mark in A GIRL NAMED BILL at Feinstein's/54 Below

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BWW Review: Nellie McKay Misses Her Mark in A GIRL NAMED BILL at Feinstein's/54 Below
Nellie McKay. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Nellie McKay's return to Feinstein's/54 Below went up in smoke. No, literally.

As she arrived at the end of what was already a dragging performance on January 27, a noticeable burning smell wafted through the venue and was quickly accompanied by a ringing fire alarm. Patrons looked around, confused, as to whether this was an insistence for evacuation before collectively shuffling towards the coat check to get the hell out of there. McKay, all the while, tried to maintain a "show must go on" demeanor, and continued to croon as we were ushered up the stairs to leave.

At the risk of being unnecessarily snarky, it was a somewhat fitting end to a bizarre and disjointed performance. McKay structured her show, called A GIRL NAMED BILL-THE LIFE AND TIME OF BILLY TIPTON, using a paper-thin storyline in which she portrays the real-life title character, a woman who was prohibited from performing because of her gender and thus posed as a man, fooling the public as well as the band with whom she traveled the country. Adhering to the plot, she would sing vaguely fitting snippets of songs traversing genres and epochs.

McKay also used her real band to depict the fictional band, all of whom were game and able to duly accompany McKay's blink-and-you'll-miss-it song selection. Its members included Alexi David (double bass, electric bass and vocals), Cary Park (guitar, mandolin, vocals) and Kenneth Salters (drums, vocals).

BWW Review: Nellie McKay Misses Her Mark in A GIRL NAMED BILL at Feinstein's/54 Below
McKay in previews for A GIRL NAMED BILL.

And what she did sing was lovely. Abridged versions of Oscar Strauss' "Jazz Up Your Lingerie," the MiLes Davis/Jon Hendricks collaboration "Four," and a plucky original tune called "I'm in the Luckiest Mood" highlighted McKay's unusual voice, able to exude a full-throated lust when singing jazz, and also a delicate quirk on more pop-skewing numbers.

Sadly, this only served to illuminate how ill-advised she was in creating this specific show. To listen to her marvelous singing voice is a delight, and each time she'd sever a song 45 seconds in to advance the "story" felt like being prematurely yanked from a soothing bubble bath.

McKay's incompatibility with the venue was also apparent, as it is intended primarily for stars of musical theater, and which is structured as traditionally proscenium. McKay, moving into the audience (again, under the guise of the story), was frankly uncomfortable for those watching. A venue also somewhat dictates a performer's audience and, judging by the soft reception, it was clear that perhaps those in attendance on this evening hadn't anticipated what they were getting themselves into.

I reiterate that, when she does throw herself into a song in any given genre, McKay is a remarkable talent. It's a shame audiences didn't get to experience more of it.


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