Nancy McGraw

March 12, 2019 | By | Add a Comment

They were both born in Georgia. And as members of the Southern diaspora and living most of their lives elsewhere, Down Home was so often in their thoughts. He was Johnny Mercer, one of the preeminent lyricists of the mid-20th century American songbook. She is Nancy McCall McGraw, who recently chose Mercer as the subject of her first cabaret show in a dozen years. As she had suspected it would be, the symbiosis between her and the lyricist was a natural. Having written the words to well over a thousand songs between the mid-1930s and the ’70s, most of them with equally celebrated composer contemporaries, Mercer offered an extremely rich catalog from which to choose. McGraw chose her set very well, including some Mercer lyrics she said she’d never heard before. Her show took its title from her familiar opening selection, “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” (music by Hoagy Carmichael), the second of Mercer’s four Oscar winners. McGraw’s version of this song was a most welcoming way to “dip our toes into the river” of Johnny Mercer’s lyrics. Her rendition greatly increased the appeal of the number, promoting the promise of a friendly neighborhood barbecue to a gala party to remember, a promise that was repeatedly fulfilled in this show.

While her set was inevitably more about the words than the music, and McGraw’s most striking strength is the plumbing of lyrics for greater depth and new meaning, the show’s underpinning support system was equally first-rate: Mark Nadler proved a quintuple threat as the show’s director, musical director, piano accompanist, arranger, and McGraw’s full vocal partner on several songs. I can only suspect that he pulled her toward the delightfully rampant energy of their duet version of “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” (Harry Warren), Mercer’s first Oscar winner. Or on their pairing of “Lazy Bones” (Carmichael) and “Save the Bones for Henry Jones” (Danny Barker, Vernon Lee), the one song in this show that Mercer didn’t write, but he did sing and record it as part of a duet. The former song was engagingly delivered with disgusted disapproval of its subject’s inactivity, rather than the more usually heard indulgent acceptance of his or her sloth. The second song was flat out rambunctious.

In turn, McGraw may have educed from Nadler the subtlety essential to her most thoughtful ballad selections. “So many of Mercer’s best songs were about regret,” she noted in her splendid narration—which occasionally occurred mid-number, a technique that has rarely worked elsewhere. (It may have been my imagination, but it seemed as if her southern accent came back stronger each time she spoke about Mercer’s body of work.) McGraw effectively proved that regret assertion with three medleys: “I Wonder What Became of Me” (Harold Arlen) linked to “When the World Was Young” (Michel Philippe-Gérard); “If Someday Comes Ever Again” (Alec Wilder) paired with “Days of Wine and Roses” (Henry Mancini); and the tryptic “Autumn Leaves” (Joseph Kosma) with Arlen’s “One for My Baby” and “Blues in the Night.” Her encore was a priceless medley of two exquisitely wistful Mancini songs, “Whistling Away the Dark,” from Darling Lili, and the inevitable “Moon River,” beautifully realized as an expression of dreaming and longing. This pairing was immediately leavened by an upbeat Arlen finale to McGraw’s party—another robust duet with Nadler: “Hit the Road to Dreamland.”

In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening
Laurie Beechman Theatre – February 22, 24
(also The Beach Cafe – February 2)

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Robert Windeler is the author of 17 books, including biographies of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, Shirley Temple, and Burt Lancaster. As a West Coast correspondent for The New York Times and Time magazine, he covered movies, television and music, and he was an arts and entertainment critic for National Public Radio. He has contributed to a variety of other publications, including TV Guide, Architectural Digest, The Sondheim Review, and People, for which he wrote 35 cover stories. He is a graduate of Duke University in English literature and holds a masters in journalism from Columbia, where he studied critical writing with Judith Crist. He has been a theatre critic for Back Stage since 1999, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and is a member of The Players and the American Theatre Critics Association.

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