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Throwing Shivs at the American Songbook

Date: Mar 07, 2013


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Nellie McKay's limbs might not be as nimble as those of Bill Irwin and David Shiner. (Whose are?) But her ukulele-strumming and piano-playing fingers, to say nothing of her deceptively barbed tongue, get every bit as much of a workout in the two men's long-awaited reunion, Old Hats.

Irwin and Shiner shot to tandem fame in Fool Moon, which reached Broadway three separate times in the 1990s. That piece featured the old-timey musical shenanigans of the Red Clay Ramblers, and it is roughly this role that McKay and her four-piece band play in Old Hats, now at the Signature Center. When she's not providing pastiche support for the two men as they cavort through everything from an inept magic act to a raucous political debate to a beloved <i>Fool Moon</i> routine, she herself takes center stage, singing a variety of wickedly witty ditties that suggest the Great American Songbook with a few shivs tossed in.

"I guess it isn't all me up there," McKay says of her Old Hats persona. "It's also Hoagy Carmichael and Louis [Armstrong] from 'Hello, Dolly!'"

Some of her Old Hats material, notably the exorcism-themed gospel rave-up "Dispossessed" and the anti-anti-feminist "Mother of Pearl," will be familiar to her fans. ("It's good to recycle," she says.) But she also debuts three new songs plus a Jobim-style Portuguese tune to accompany that hapless magic act.

McKay, who made her Broadway debut as Polly Peachum in the 2007 Roundabout revival of The Threepenny Opera, also contributes a stream of wide-eyed patter that lives in the whimsical retro realm that Irwin and Shiner call home. ("Hey, that was swell, fellas! Do you think I could dance a bit tonight, Bill?") Her fresh-scrubbed enthusiasm, not surprising from a woman who recently recorded an album-length tribute to Doris Day, rubs off on our protagonists; where the typical leading man is struck dumb by such a beguiling character, the mute Irwin and Shiner are inspired to vocalize.

While the actual interactions between McKay and her leading men are largely confined to that sequence and a charming Charleston, she says director Tina Landau has encouraged a fair amount of creative back-and-forth within the cast. Or, as she puts it, "Everyone in this show has opinions about everything."

McKay says she tried to keep herself in the dark about Irwin and Shiner's skills before Old Hats rehearsals "because otherwise I'd have been too intimidated to function." But now that she and her band members have a nightly view of the action, staying unaware is no longer an option: "Every night, we're beside ourselves when we watch the show."

Having released five albums in the last decade, McKay is accustomed to extensive touring, which makes the idea of spending a few months in one place appealing "as opposed to finding ourselves most nights at a Denny's at 4 in the morning outside Omaha or wherever." But unlike her timeless stylings, even a successful off-Broadway run has an expiration date. What will McKay do at that point? "Goodness, I have no idea. Try to sell out where I can and get by where I can't, I suppose."

Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University's Goldring Arts Journalism Program
Photo by Joan Marcus