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Nellie McKay in "I Want to Live!"

I didn’t know who Nellie McKay was before last night. Our friend Kim, an insider on the local theater scene, had tickets to the show, so Joe and I tagged along, always game for a good time. While we were waiting for the show to start (there was a delay — apparently the band got stuck in the crazy traffic on the bridge coming over from Indiana), I googled Ms. McKay and discovered that she’s had quite a career as a singer, songwriter, stand-up comedian and actor.

I can report, from my position at the audience, that there was never any doubt, once she took the stage, that we were in the presence of a real star. I am now an enthusiastic fan of Nellie McKay.

My feelings about the show itself were mixed, though.

“I Want to Live” is the true-life story of Barbara Graham, the third woman in California to die in the state’s gas chamber at San Quentin prison. Members of the band played bit parts from time to time, serving up the occasionally necessary dialogue or sound effect to help a transition between songs, but it was mostly a one-woman show: McKay sang songs, then acted out a little bit of the story, then segued into another song. The songs usually seemed to make sense in the context of the story, sort of, a little bit, but the context McKay provided was so slim (just four or five words, sometimes) that the narrative, really, felt like a self-indulgent pretense. One tried to follow it more out of politeness than interest. Don’t get me wrong. The lines were well-delivered, punchy, funny, etc. They just didn’t amount to enough to make themselves matter, especially in comparison to the brilliance of the singing that punctuated the story bits.

Because she is a brilliant singer, with a repertoire ranging from early (early, early) pop classics (early as in “before the songs we call “standards” were written) all the way through to the present. You know that babyish “cigarette girl” voice from the 1920s? Sometimes she sounded like that. Sometimes she sounded like Tori Amos. Sometimes she sounded like Adele. I don’t mean to dismiss her by making these comparisons. I’m just not as practiced at writing about music as I am at writing about writing, and don’t know how to talk about the quality of a voice any other way. When she was singing, she often stole the show (from, um, herself and her own narrative pretensions).

After Barbara Graham (finally) died, McKay just cut into straight-up singing of songs without trying to make a story out of them. For this reason, the last twenty minutes of the show was the best part, especially The Dog Song (which, come to think of it, I believe I had heard her sing before, maybe on the radio) and her rendition of the Loretta Lynn classic “One’s On the Way,” which she introduced by saying “this one’s always a big hit at Planned Parenthood rallies.”

If you have a chance to see this, you should probably go, but don’t expect much from the story. Just treat it like the concert that it should have been.

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