From TPAC and OzArts:
Meow Meow: “Kamikaze Cabaret” in the War Memorial Auditorium
Some years ago, I attended two productions of the esteemed Houston Grand Opera. One was the lesser-known Verdi opera, Macbeth; the other Handel’s Ariodante. Both suffered the same fate: directors who didn’t believe in the material or trust the audience, so they felt compelled to camp it up, dress it up.
In the Verdi, Scots soldiers stomped around in mini leather kilts. Incongruous. In the Handel, half-dressed sopranos crawled about on stage in mid-aria. Distracting.
In both cases, great beauty was obscured by incongruous, distracting excess. I got the same impression at the War Memorial Auditorium. On Friday October 28, 2022, TPAC and OZ Arts co-sponsored the immensely talented Australian chanteuse Melissa Madden Gray, stage name “Meow Meow.”
Name notwithstanding, there was nothing kittenish about this act. Set as what her publicity calls “post-postmodern” cabaret, the performance had all the elements of post-WWI Berlin. The hall was set up as a nightclub with small tables scattered throughout and drinks available at the bar. Some audience members had even dressed the part as denizens of late-night speakeasies.
One high point was her dress. It is rare these days to find people, even performers, who have the gift of recognizing the art of dress, dress that suits the body type of the artist. The silvery strapless slinky dress shorter at the front but flowing like a train in the back, suited her traditional shapeliness, glittering and glowing in the dim light, perfect for the romantic ballads that shifted effortlessly from English to French to German to Spanish.
In addition to her easy command of language, her vocal facility was absolutely spellbinding. With an enviably wide range and total control of tone color, dynamics, and pitch even in the midst of odd attempts at slapstick comedy involving audience members, her voice could have stolen the show. But it seemed as if she didn’t trust the material of her talent or the emotional range of the audience. Each moment of poignancy was too-quickly steered headlong into quips or quirks that result in what she calls “kamikaze cabaret.” But I remember the fate of kamikaze pilots.
For example, she chose audience members to participate on stage. Most of the remaining audience seemed to find the participants’ discomfort hilarious when they were instructed to fondle her legs and hips as she pushed their heads toward her breasts or crotch. I found it uncomfortable. Likewise, I found her snark about Nashville—framed as a disappointment when, but for Covid, she would have been in New York—to be distasteful. Her ongoing joke that the technicians were not competent was not well-handled because, though an expert singer, her comedy chops are weak. In a nod to said Covid, she brought a hand sanitizer stand onstage and a duffel bag full of masks, gloves, and garbage bags with head and neck holes cut out for the participants. It was almost cute, almost clever.
Only two moments of this comedic aspect stood out as amusing for me, although I was clearly in the minority. At one point, she had six audience members on the stage, supposedly as a poor substitution for the corps of professional dancing men she would have had in New York. She was singing while directing their movements, ending the scene with them lifting her into the air as she posed, diva-like on the chaise lounge of their arms and backs. All of this could probably work with Carol Burnett or Kate McKinnon, but her tone seemed a bit too intense for humor.
In another moment, she barked “Aufstehen!” in true Reichsmarschall style, demanding that the stage techs make the unmoveable stage rotate. So they stepped up, as ordered, projecting a running light pattern on the wall as a tech scampered up toward the stage with a lazy susan. The artiste stepped on the device and sang as the tech rotated her. The virtuosity of her physical agility and musical ability was impressive.
Mark Hartman, her pianist and music director, was her equal in musicality and technique, occasionally joining in the humor bits and, given the chance, I would enjoy an evening just of the two of them (with perhaps a bass and drumset) singing the older cabaret standards like Jacques Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas [Don’t leave me],” her sweet rendition of Patty Griffin’s “Be careful,” and her lovely original works that have shades of Steven Sondheim and Paul Simon influence.
Still, I’m grateful that acts like these are available in Nashville. Most of the audience roared with laughter at this musical lioness, but not every one can work for everyone. I’ll look forward to the thrilling DakhaBrakha at OZ in February. This unique ensemble that updates Ukrainian folk music with influences as widespread as jazz and funk is a true catch for the Music City.
Meanwhile, Meow Meow’s recordings are available at her website, the Meow Meow Revolution.
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Y Kendall is a Stanford-educated musicologist, specializing in dance history who recently earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Columbia University, studying nonfiction writing with Ben Ratliff and Margo Jefferson. Kendall’s diverse works have been published in Alchemy: Journal of Translation, Columbia Journal, Mitos Magazín, The Hunger Mountain Review, and The Salt Collective, among others. Born and raised in Tennessee, Kendall now lives near Nashville, freelancing as a flutist and writer, while caregiving for relatives.