In a dance studio practically underneath the 405 in West L.A., the singer-actors Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt sit, stiff-backed, in a pair of chairs, staring themselves down in a ceiling-length mirror. Their backing band drops into the Lou Rawls standard “Fine Brown Frame” and they start singing in airtight close harmony.
Then they lean forward and, with formidable agility and poise, swing themselves upside down and perform dual splits in perfect time. It’s like something out of an ultra-deadpan “Cabaret,” dryly funny but as exacting as old Broadway.
That’s the hook of their band, Nancy and Beth. The wink of their comedic chops gets even funnier when paired with their dead-serious affection for classic country and Gene Kelly.
Mullally and Hunt will be familiar to anyone who enjoys a scene-stealing supporting role in TV. Perhaps best known as Karen on “Will & Grace,” Mullally’s cheerfully desperate characters on “Party Down “ and “Parks & Recreation” are fan favorites, and Hunt’s turn as lesbian bassist Devin Boland in “Friday Night Lights” added a rich new arc to the series.
The two met in Austin, Texas, on the set of the 2012 indie movie “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” where they became fast friends over their shared harmony-singing and love of deconstructing old standards with weird humor. They started the band around then, but they are just now releasing their self-titled debut album.
I don’t think of acting and music as different things in my brain, they’re both essential.
“I’m fully aware that nobody knows that I sing except for you, me, Stephanie, my mom and Nick [Offerman, the comedian and Mullally’s husband],” Mullally says. “They probably think I’m just like Karen on ‘Will & Grace.’ If we keep plugging away, in a couple years people won’t be as confused.”
“I don’t think of acting and music as different things in my brain, they’re both essential to each other,” Hunt says. “Nancy and Beth is perfect because we get to get all those things out.”
Each of them had a life in music coinciding with their film careers — Hunt is a fixture around Austin’s music scene, playing in her own band Ghost Songs, and Mullally trained at the School of American Ballet in New York. Their band Nancy and Beth is as sharp as any revivalist act going today (though likely much, much daffier).
Take, for starters, their cover of George Jones’ gold-standard-of-country-weepers “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” The song is about as emotionally gut-punching as they come, a fact that Hunt and Mullally respect to the ends of the earth. But when the spoken-word bridge kicks in, they can’t help themselves from ramping up the tear-jerking to the point of absurdity. Is it possible to deeply love a song and fully appreciate its manipulativeness?
When we tried to do it straight, it was stupid. We kinda had to ruin it.
“You can’t top it. He stopped loving her because he died, that’s the only reason, otherwise he’d still be going,” Mullally says. “We’re not making fun of the song. When we tried to do it straight, it was stupid. We kinda had to ruin it.”
On the other hand, their cover of Gucci Mane’s “I Don’t Love Her” is played absolutely straight. While the history of white folk musicians covering rap songs is checkered, hearing these two blade-sharp comedians purr lines like “Quick to take ya lil’ diva and treat that ho like a slut” is oddly invigorating.
“It’s a beautiful love ballad,” Mullally says, mostly kidding but perhaps also not. When they first heard the original, “It was just instantaneous, head-snapping, eyes wide and mouths agape. It’s the furthest thing from a feminist anthem you could even unearth, but the mere fact of the two of us doing it makes you think. ”
When the group plays Largo on Saturday, it will be the centerpiece of an off-and-on music career that has already taken them to big stages. They’ve opened for Robert Plant and Emmylou Harris — a career highlight for any act, but one that was especially affirming given their day jobs. “I don’t think those guys even knew I was an actress. Emmylou, she’s the best” Mullally sighs, worshipfully.
“She’s so funny and goofy, she just wanted to talk about baseball,” Hunt adds.
But over the last months, they’ve honed their rapport into an exactingly choreographed mini Bob Fosse routine. It hits a rare sweet spot in musical comedy: Everything is performed so perfectly (and even sometimes movingly), that their comic sensibility subverts the whole act into something weirder.
You can’t put your finger on why, but it is savagely funny while also being a really rousing show.
If the record resonates, will they keep it on the road? They’d certainly like to. But then again, Nancy and Beth was never intended to be about much more than hanging out and perfecting dance routines to crack each other up.
“We just know what’s right based on whether it’s fun or not,” Hunt says. “It really just feels like we’re hanging out.” Mullally agrees: “Stephanie records it when we come up with choreography and we just cry laughing because I’m so serious about it.”
Nancy and Beth
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday (doors open at 7 p.m.)
Where: Largo at the Coronet, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles
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