PROVINCETOWN — Avid fans packed the intimate Art House Wednesday night to savor Megan Mullally’s up-close-and-personal cabaret act, a winning combo of favorite songs and unscripted reminiscences.
That Minnie Mouse voice familiar from her iconic role as capricious billionairess Karen Walker on the sitcom “Will & Grace”? Not her natural timbre, it turns out, though her speech patterns do occasionally suggest a spritz of champagne. What blew listeners away was the rafter-raising power of her singing voice, which she employed to impressive effect on Broadway before and after her nine award-heaped seasons (1998-2006) starring on network TV. It kicked in immediately on the razzle-dazzler “Look What Happened to Mabel” (from “Mack & Mabel”) and hit emotional pay dirt with Patty Griffin’s “Waiting for My Child.”
Mullally went on to wow the audience with full-on yet nuanced renditions of Sondheim — the signature songs of both alienated wives from “Follies,” plus the ever-hopeful “Broadway Baby” — and proved herself equally adept at country and blues stylings, with an occasional dollop of gospel-tinged melisma. For a couple of numbers, she was joined onstage by her Nancy and Beth bandmate, Stephanie Hunt, with whom, she joked, she has “so much in common, being the same age.” (Mullally was born in 1958, Hunt in 1989.) In between songs, Mullally shared coming-up stories with her pianist, Broadway savant Seth Rudetsky.
She recalled starting out a “danseuse” as a kid in Oklahoma City. She showed enough talent to spend summers studying at New York’s prestigious School of American Ballet. English lit studies at Northwestern led to theater work in Chicago (she recounted a particularly humiliating Shakespeare audition involving a massive wardrobe fail), and she quickly found work upon moving to LA. Her earliest close call was the female lead in the film “Risky Business”: “I did not get it — spoiler alert.” Her two lines as a prostitute ended up on the cutting-room floor, “but if you were really pathetic, you could freeze-frame and try to find me.”
She confessed that she nearly blew her “Will & Grace” audition by dressing up in an impecunious actress’s version of haute couture: thrift-shop finds, including “the kind of a fake fur that looks really fake.” She and Sean Hayes (“best, best friends forever”), who played Jack McFarland, were the cutups on set, “off in the corner, pulling our pants down.” They referred to their more sedate costars, Debra Messing and Eric McCormack, as “Mom and Dad.”
Several of Mullally’s song selections prompted bouts of dream casting. She could finesse every last role in “Follies”; in fact, she reported, Trevor Nunn offered her the part of Sally in London, but the production got sidelined by the Broadway revival. Re-revive!
One show that Mullally’s fans will truly miss, unless the rights-holders relent, is the abandoned project “Karen the Musical.” Swearing the audience to
secrecy — “We don’t want the po-po bursting in” — Mullally shared a snippet, and back came that helium bubble of a voice, as Karen — rebounding from a slight — sang, “So this is what’s it’s like to be rejected — now I know.”
It’s a sentiment that Mullally, in the course of a long and tumultuous career, can’t have encountered often, despite the occasional uncooperative costume. (For this performance, she wore a soigné dolman-sleeved black gown strategically secured with rhinestone toggles.) Now that she’s free to perform whatever strikes her fancy, whenever the opportunity arises, she’s clearly in a mood to play, and we’d be foolish not to play along. “Happy Days Are Here Again,” slowed to a moody meditation underscoring the composition’s minor bent, was Mullally’s choice of a final, final encore (she’d promised 34). It left us all touched, and wanting more.