Beg, borrow, steal, jump the line, beat up who’s in front of you, storm down the doors if you have to–whatever it takes to get in to see Nellie McKay’s latest cabaret piece A Girl Named Bill—The Life and Times of Billy Tipton, playing tonight through Saturday at 54 Below.
Following her acclaimed Silent Spring–It’s Not Nice To Fool Mother Nature tribute to Rachel Carson and I Want To Live! (inspired by Susan Hayward’s Oscar-winning portrayal of convicted and executed prostitute-junkie murderess Barbara Graham in the 1958 film noir of the same name), A Girl Named Bill concerns the strange case of Billy Tipton, jazz musician and bandleader from the 1930s to the ‘70s, who performed with artists including the Ink Spots and Billy Eckstine. When he died in 1989, Tipton was discovered to be a woman who had passed as a man in both his professional and personal lives.
So Nellie begins A Girl Named Bill as a young woman (adorable in plain but comely pink dress and hat) and with a ragtime piano piece followed by a ukulele turn on “But Definitely,” from the Hollywood songwriting team of Mack Gordon and Harry Revel (and sung by Shirley Temple in Poor Little Rich Girl). But after finding it hard to get work—and performing “Jazz Up Your Lingerie”, from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1931 Oscar-nominated film The Smiling Lieutenant—she runs off the stage, returning in boyish drag with short hair, man’s suit and tie, and though I wasn’t looking in that direction and never saw it, male prosthetic.
“From now on my motto is, ‘Wine, women and so long’!” Billy boasts, and as Billy, Nellie proceeds into screwball comedy-like song-and-dance, endearingly corny jokes and even miming, not to mention great singing impressions of Jimmy Durante on his signature “Inka Dinka Doo” and her old faithful Bob Dylan (an uproarious “Sweetheart Like You,” during which she mimes a guitar solo on uke).
“There are two kinds of men in this world–ineffectual nice guys and happy assholes,” she declares. “I want to be a happy asshole!” Inevitably, though, her band members get suspicious, songs like Lerner & Loewe’s “A Hymn to Him (Why Cant a Woman Be More Like a Man” from My Fair Lady and her perfectly mimed shaving routing notwithstanding.
“Why does he never have five o’clock shadow?” one asks. “He sure has a big ass for a guy!” observes another. And when she goes under the hood when their car breaks down in Idaho and they want to know why she has a box of Kotex, she claims “they’re good for filtering oil.”
Musically, Billy also resorts to performing Jelly Roll Morton’s admittedly and understatedly “smutty” classic “Winin’ Boy Blues,” and manages to keep the ruse going, through such other wonderful song choices as Hoagy Carmichael/Ned Washington’s “The Nearness of You,” Mose Allison’s “Stop This World,” her own original “Please Park Here I’m Lonely” and of all things, Cream’s “Blue Condition.” As usual, she lets her topnotch band (guitarist Cary Park, drummer Kenneth Salters and bassist Alexi David, who also plays the tiny Greek baglamas treble bouzouki) have plenty of fun singing and acting along.
The show ends with Steve Allen’s “This Could Be the Start of Something,” ironically following Billy’s fatal collapse from a bleeding ulcer.
With A Girl Named Bill—The Life and Times of Billy Tipton, Nellie McKay has outdone herself in terms of creativity and commitment. As an entertainer, she’s the total package. As an artist, nothing is beyond her.