BWW Reviews: STEVE ROSS and KAREN OBERLIN Ooze Charm, Class, and Chemistry In Tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at 54 Below
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
Whenever I attend a big event of the International Al Jolson Society, which usually consists of about 100 people out of the nearly 1,000-member organization, I probably bring the average age of the group down by about 10 years. And since I was born when Dwight Eisenhower was President that should tell you something about how long it's been since the heyday of Al Jolson, who died in 1950. Jolson was not only the greatest Broadway musical performer at the beginning of the 20th century, he was the star of the first talking film, The Jazz Singer, which in just 13 years will celebrate its 100th anniversary. To paraphrase a line in a song from the musical 1776, "Will anybody care?" By 2027, will the only people who know about the iconic Al Jolson be music and film historians, entertainment archeologists, and whatever fanatics are left in the Jolson Society? Will there be any "younger" folks coming along to keep the name and memory of Al Jolson alive?
Jolson isn't the only legendary American entertainer or composer whose legacy could evaporate over time unless new generations of singers and musicians appreciate them enough to perform their work. I thought about this Thursday night as I watched two of New York's best cabaret performers--Steve Ross and Karen Oberlin--pay homage to the music and movies associated with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, arguably one of the greatest dance partnerships ever captured on film. Astaire and Rogers first appeared together on a movie screen in 1933 (they were supporting actors in Flying Down to Rio). Will we still be celebrating them in the year 2033? And, by extension, will entertainers--cabaret or otherwise--still be singing the George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and Dorothy Fields songs Astaire and Rogers helped turn into standards of the Great American Songbook (GAS)?
If Ross and Oberlin have anything to say about it (or in this case, sing about it), the dancing and singing duo will live forever. Their recent tribute at 54 Below, Cheek to Cheek, was a show oozing charm, class, charisma, and chemistry, but most of all they conveyed their love for these legendary performers and the classic tunes associated with them.
Ross and Oberlin were an ideal partnership for this particular cabaret dance, as both have recently staged individual tribute shows to the icons. Since 2010, Ross' Putting On the Ritz Astaire set has played to rave reviews around the country, while Oberlin wowed audiences during two performances of a Ginger Rogers Century program in Boston in 2011. Combining the musically erudite piano man Ross and his Astaire-like style, with the vocally luscious Oberlin and her Rogers-like charm, seemed to be a match made in New York cabaret heaven. With savvy guidance from their director Walter Willison (and subtle musical support on bass from Jesse Bielenberg), Ross and Oberlin covered all or parts of 28 songs from eight out the 10 films the dancing duo starred in together (overall, there were songs from 15 films and one Broadway show), and included some cool historical anecdotes and personal asides, yet they still managed to keep the show moving briskly along like Astaire and Rogers gliding across a dance floor (see video below).
The duo looked deliciously retro as they took the stage; Ross in a black tux (sans the top hat, white tie and tails), Oberlin in a form-fitting gold sequent gown, and they opened with a sprightly "I Won't Dance" (Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields) from the 1935 film Roberta, then segued into duets on Irving Berlin's "Isn't This a Lovely Day" (from Top Hat, 1935) and George and Ira Gershwin's jaunty "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off" (from Shall We Dance, 1937). Ross' first solo came from an Astaire film without Rogers, 1953's The Band Wagon. On his rendition of "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan," Ross again proved that nobody else in cabaret is as ideal a fit for conjuring Fred Astaire's relaxed crooning. He may no longer possess powerful pipes, but Ross can deliver a Berlin, Gershwin or Porter lyric with the best of them. And while he may not regularly play the Café Carlyle, in style, substance, and dedication to the GAS, Ross is the closest thing cabaret now has to the late and legendary Bobby Short.
Speaking of perfect fits, with her success at delivering classic songs connected with Rogers and Doris Day, Oberlin has cornered the cabaret market on homages to blonde, beautiful, singing film legends. Her opening solo salvos included a sweet and light medley of two songs from Rogers' star turn in the 1930 Broadway musical, Girl Crazy, the George and Ira Gershwin standards, "Embraceable You" and "But Not For Me." Later, during a fun version of "We're In the Money" (from the 1933 Busby Berkley film Golddiggers of 1933), Oberlin related how Rogers' played with the original lyric and then delivered the sexiest bit of Pig Latin you'll ever hear in a cabaret show. But her best solo section came at the show's midpoint when she sensually slinked through the audience on "I'll Be Hard to Handle" (from Roberta, and which was also part of Oberlin's 2012 Songs of Daring Dames show), then adroitly mounted the piano for a lilting "I'll String Along With You" (from the 1934 film starring Rogers and Dick Powell, Twenty Million Sweethearts, and a song Oberlin performs on her recent CD with guitarist Sean Harkness, A Wish), and followed with the intense Dorothy Fields/Oscar Levant ballad, "Don't Mention Love To Me" (from the 1935 Rogers film sans Astaire, In Person).
But the "Wow" moment of the show came next and it was, ironically, on an instrumental only and on a song not from an Astaire/Rogers film. Ross' piano arrangement of Cole Porter's classic, "Begin the Beguine" (from Broadway Melody of 1940, in which Eleanor Powell became Astaire's dancing co-star a year after his split from Rogers) was so stirringly cinematic some of the phrases sounded like parts of the score of Lawrence of Arabia. Then on a jazzy mini-mash up of Irving Berlin songs--"Putting On The Ritz" (Blue Skies, 1946) and "Stepping Out With My Baby" (Easter Parade, 1948)--Ross' fingers floated along the keyboard like an elegant Astaire tap routine.
After a lovely duet of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer ballad, "My Shining Hour" (The Sky's The Limit, 1943, Astaire with Joan Leslie), Oberlin sat next to Ross at the piano, which according to Steve gave "new meaning to the phrase cheek to cheek." Naturally, the duo's delightful finale included that classic Irving Berlin song from Top Hat, connected to Berlin's romantic and deceptively haunting, "Let's Face The Music and Dance" (Follow the Fleet, 1936).
During the 1930s, the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with its transcendent melodies and transformative choreography, provided an escape for tens of millions of Americans dealing with the Great Depression. And for the audience at 54 Below, there couldn't have been a more fitting encore for Ross and Oberlin's wonderful 75-minute nostalgic escape than the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away From Me" from Shall We Dance. Let's hope they'll never take those movies and that music away from us. Perhaps we'll need another generation of entertainers like Steve Ross and Karen Oberlin to keep it all alive.