Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt Are Nancy And Beth
This punk-showbiz band defies categorization.
From the moment the "punk-showbiz" band Nancy And Beth enters Café Carlyle wearing matching red jumpsuits, we know we're in for an uncommon night of cabaret. The Carlyle's Steinway grand piano has been cleared from the stage, and the band sprawls off the central platform. This is to maximize dance space for the band's two front women, Stephanie Hunt and Megan Mullally (of Will & Grace fame). Not since Tommy Tune tapped on a postage stamp has movement been so integral to a show at the Café Carlyle, a snug venue not typically amenable to hoofers. Of course, Nancy And Beth (the "And" is capitalized) is an act that seems most at ease with the atypical.
They open with the obscure P.M. Dawn hip-hop ditty "Shake," which does indeed involve a fair amount of shaking while Hunt and Mullally command, "Everyone get out of your bodies." This is immediately followed by the cute-as-a-button 1958 Doris Day hit "Everybody Loves a Lover." They later deliver a saucy rendition of Nellie Lutcher's R&B number "Fine Brown Frame," dedicated to an unnamed member of the audience. The sultry Rachel Sweet song "Please Mister Jailer" from the John Waters movie Cry-Baby is a real highlight, as the singers gyrate and wail with abandon.
Mullally illustrates this eclectic set list with her original choreography: The combination of limp wrists, chair acrobatics, and plenty of shoulder action gives us knockoff Fosse the likes of which one rarely sees outside of a middle school dance competition. Mullally and Hunt deliver the moves with commitment and sincerity (and just the faintest aftertaste of irony). It all adds up to the kind of high-concept musical act that you'd normally have to ride the L train to witness — but for one week, audiences get to enjoy it on the Upper East Side over a perfect filet mignon and a glass of Bordeaux.
And that proves to be a delightful pairing, especially since this strange mélange of forms is undergirded by real musicianship: Mullally and Hunt's voices blend in seamless harmony. Native Oklahoman Mullally particularly shines on the twangier country songs, delivering a surprisingly hefty rendition of the Tammy Wynette number "No Charge," about a mother who squirms out of paying her daughter for the chores she completed by sweetly singing, "For the nine months I carried you growin' inside me, no charge."
The maudlin tone of that song contrasts wildly with the unsentimental crassness of Gucci Mane's "I Don't Love Her," the lyrics to which cannot be printed here. The song works up to a near-operatic finish thanks to the ethereal backup vocals of Petra Haden, who is the breakout star of the evening: She's like a horn section and sound effects machine all rolled into one incredible performer.
The other musicians in Nancy And Beth are dexterous keyboardist Datri Bean, dazzling guitarist Sophia Johnson, steady percussionist Joe Berardi, and band manager and bassist Andrew Pressman, who contributes greatly to the surreal banter between songs.
It's best not to delve too deeply into the internal logic that makes up this evening of jazz, gospel, country, R&B, super-misogynistic rap, and dance. Instead, take it moment-by-moment, and enjoy the most avant-garde Carlyle residency in recent memory.