Nellie McKay's A Girl Named Bill, a one-woman-turned-man-turned-woman show written and performed by McKay and her goofy musical trio brings to life schmaltzy entertainer/damned fine pianist Billy Tipton. After his passing in 1989, it was discovered that Billy was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, a woman who lived and worked as a man by binding her breasts and padding her pants.
Famously detailed in Diane Wood Middlebrook’s Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton (McKay’s primary source material), Tipton married women, adopted children, and existed mostly as a man while attempting to avoid fame (lest his secret be revealed). In McKay’s musical, this becomes an ongoing puzzle for Tipton’s bandmates, who muse that “he’s got an ass like a woman” and “his face is so smooth.”
If the suit fits...
Ever since her recorded debut, 2004’s Get Away from Me, Nellie McKay has shown off a cuttingly witty, often childlike sense of humor as sharp as her Tin Pan-Broadway-Bacharach-Weillian cabaret-jazz-musical mix. That she’s added character-driven showcases to her repertoire is no surprise, as McKay seems to have an unquenchable thirst for confounding audiences. She has produced solo shows featuring alter egos such as sly, demanding murderess Barbara Graham (Mckay’s musical cabaret I Want to Live!) and environmental activist Rachel Carson (in It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature).
Here, rather than going for straight biography, McKay (in a blonde finger-waved wig, baggy suits, and brown Oxford lace-up shoes), bassist Alexi David, guitarist Cary Park, and drummer Kenneth Salters perform vignettes, real and imagined, from Tipton’s tale, linked together by jazz and Broadway standards (e.g., Dave Frishberg’s “I Want to Be a Sideman” and My Fair Lady’s stiff-upper-lippy “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?”).
McKay also includes a handful of original songs such as her jovial “I’m in the Luckiest Mood” and several other ribald numbers. Not only is McKay a fluid, silken vocalist, her piano playing is warm, elegant, nimble, and humorous, like Thelonious Monk without the bad mood swings.
Tipton liked to do impersonations, and McKay performs hammy imitations of Tipton doing even hammier impersonations of Jimmy Durante, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan. Better, though, than watching McKay as Tipton the entertainer (which is smashing) is watching McKay take on Tipton the passing man. McKay’s Tipton encounters racist police while touring through the segregated South, his wives expect more from him sexually than he can provide, and he must explain while bathing his children why Daddy won’t hop in the tub. “You might see something you don’t understand,” he says.
This is the heart of A Girl Named Bill: an erudite yet serious examination of old-school gender identities, old showbiz tropes, and the fear of being known and revealed behind the green velvet curtain.