Cabaret Life NYC: KAREN OBERLIN Performing the Songs of Doris Day Is One of Cabaret's Most Ideal Matches of Singer to Subject
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
I was just a little more than a year into my new side career as a cabaret reviewer when I first saw a Karen Oberlin show. It was Valentine's Day night 2012 and Oberlin--with guitarist Sean Harkness and guest violinist Aaron Weinstein--would be performing her romance-laced set, Stringing Along With Love, at the Metropolitan Room. At the time, all I knew about Oberlin was that she was considered among New York's best female cabaret singers, and I hadn't researched her performing history pre-show.
About a third of the way into her enchanting set I leaned over to my wife (it was Valentine's Day, after all) and whispered, "You know, she has a real Doris Day quality in her voice and in the way she delivers some lyrics." This immediately ratcheted up my appreciation for Oberlin since there are four passions I inherited from my Dad--baseball, reading the morning papers, sports writing and Doris Day (well, also Sophia Loren, but that's for another column). Since Dad had grown up during the prime of the Big Band Era of the 1940s, I heard the sultry sounds of a young Doris Day singing songs like "Sentimental Journey" on the family stereo more than a few times. Once I also saw Day's strikingly adorable blondness on a record cover, and her rocking body and warm, fun personality on film, I knew what Dad was talking about. As popular, famous, and near iconic as Doris Day became, in my book, as a singer and screen beauty she's always been vastly underrated. Little did I know that Karen Oberlin had been doing a Doris Day tribute show since 2001 at places like Firebird, Iridium, and the late Danny's Skylight Room, and had produced a CD, Secret Love: The Music of Doris Day, in 2002. Karen Oberlin had instantly become my secret love.
But then she wasn't. After being totally charmed by the lovely Oberlin's smooth, sweet, and lilting voice that Valentine's Day, I came away sadly disappointed by her ambitious foray out of her comfort zone with her Summer 2012 show at Feinstein's (and then at the Laurie Beechman), I'll Be Hard to Handle: Songs of Daring Dames. Turned out it was some of her material that was hard for Oberlin to handle, and her attempt to be daring like the women singers and songwriters she featured (an eclectic mix, including Mae West, Loretta Lynn, Lesley Gore and Pink) fell flat, at least for me. Then last October she teamed up with T. Oliver Reid at the Metropolitan Room for a tribute to Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, an incredibly misguided and clunky show that would have had Ol' Blue Eyes mainlining Jack Daniels and Lady Day reaching for the heroin needle. Listen, nobody can blame Karen Oberlin for not wanting to be typecast as an Easy Listening Pop/Jazz goddess who can only excel on Great American Songbook tunes. She probably wants to be thought of as more than what New York Times critic Stephen Holden has called her: "A mild-mannered pop classicist with a tinge of jazz." In fact, Oberlin deserves major props for taking musical risks. But there's something to be said for not being a Jill of all trades and in sticking with what works best for you, a notion that in Oberlin's case was totally reinforced by her delicious performance (again with Harkness) in her most recent February show at Kitano, A Wish, which was a launch party for an excellent new CD filled with romantic standards that live right in Oberlin's vocal pocket.
So when I heard that Oberlin was bringing her Doris Day tribute to Birdland on April 27 in celebration of Day's 90th birthday, I was chomping at the bit to observe what seemed a perfect fit, especially since not everything I'd seen and heard Oberlin do on a cabaret stage had been an ideal marriage of performer to material. Well, all I can say is that my Dad would have loved Secret Love: A Tribute to Doris Day. I have experienced some outstanding tribute shows over the past few years (including Jillian Laurain singing Streisand, Colleen McHugh channeling Garland, Barb Jungr conjuring Dylan, Janice Hall mastering Marlene, Lauren Fox taking on both Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, William Blake echoing Etta James, Ann Hampton Callaway nailing Sarah Vaughan, Rosemary Loar jazzing up Sting, Shana Farr honoring Julie Andrews, and both Marissa Mulder and Billie Roe killing it on Tom Waits), but based on the performer's look, singing style, vocal quality, and passion for the material, Oberlin and Doris Day is the best fit of a cabaret singer to a famous artist since I heard Stacy Sullivan take on Peggy Lee in 2012.
Since Secret Love has evolved into more of an exploration of Doris Day's early Big Band singing career, Oberlin's musical support system has morphed into her own little big band, an extremely accomplished septet led by Tedd Firth--her long time Musical Director and arranger for this show--and which includes some of New York's best musicians; Steve Doyle on bass, Ray Marchica on drums, and a four-piece horn section of Cliff Lyons and Michael Hashim on sax, Nate Maryland on Trombone, and Jeff Wilfore on trumpet. This stellar group (in my mind already a candidate for a Best Band/Orchestra Award at next year's BroadwayWorld Awards voting) set the Make Believe Ballroom mood right from the start, with a swinging instrumental (including multiple solos) of Julie Styne and Sammy Cahn's "It's You Or No One," which Day sang in her film debut, 1948's Romance On the High Seas. Framed by posters of Day films and sheet music, Oberlin took the Birdland stage wearing a black cocktail dress and a dreamy smile and launched into an up tempo opener with Duke Ellington's "Tell Me, Tell Me, Dream Face." She appropriately followed with Day's first hit song, the 1945 Les Brown classic "Sentimental Journey," and on this song as much as any in the set, it was clear that while Oberlin subtly emits some of Day's vocal qualities and articulation of certain lyrics, there's not a hint of an impersonation. This is Oberlin's slightly jazzy, slightly swinging, completely passionate interpretation of her idol's songbook. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
Oberlin was supple and smoky on a quintessential nightclub song, "While the Music Plays On" (which featured a nifty Jeff Wilfore trumpet solo), she was magical on "It's Magic" (also from Romance on the High Seas), going all silky and smooth on Firth's danceable, samba-esque arrangement (with a cool Michael Hashim sax solo), and with just Firth's piano, Doyle' bass, and Marchica's drums serving as a trio, she was thrilling on a jazzy arrangement of "You're My Thrill." Oberlin offered a rare belt on "Put 'Em In a Box, Tie 'Em With a Ribbon" (including a pounding Doyle bass), and with just Firth as accompaniment, the mezzo soprano tapped into her lower register to nice effect on the torchy "The Night We Called It A Day." Once again, you could hear some unmistakable Doris Day tones and inflections on "I'll Never Stop Loving You," the intense ballad written especially for Doris when she played 1930s nightclub singer Ruth Etting in the 1955 film, Love Me or Leave Me. Oberlin was downright kittenish on a jazzy, up tempo version of "Close Your Eyes," which Day recorded with Andre Previn's jazz trio for the 1962 album, Duets, and which, ironically, was also recorded by Ruth Etting in 1933. And on the Big Band number, "Come to Baby, Do," Oberlin injected a sense of fun, echoing some of the instrumental riffs with some nice scatting, an aspect of her jazzy sensibility that she's careful not to overdo. In many cabaret shows, fronting a band this size can be treacherous, but Oberlin never seemed overpowered by her orchestra, as the whole group expertly conjured up the luscious sounds of America's pop culture past.
Two things kept a superb show from being truly great. Oberlin has performed the Doris Day material so often, she probably likes to mix things up and keep the show fresh, so Eric Yves Garcia served as a guest singer for a solo on "Street of Dreams" and for a fun duet with Karen on "I'd Rather Be Here With You." Garcia is the current New York cabaret golden boy, and with good reason, but this is the kind of show that should be all Karen, all the time. Garcia has a wonderful voice and is an engaging performer, but I would have rather heard Oberlin offer songs such as "Everybody Loves a Lover," "Teacher's Pet," and "When I Fall In Love." Oh well, que sera, sera.
Oberlin isn't always comfortable or smooth when delivering cabaret patter, and in this show her script tended to meander (especially towards the end) and seemed filled with biographical info lifted right from Day's website or her Wikipedia entry. While Oberlin offered a few fascinating anecdotes (Day was heavily influenced by Ella Fitzgerald, who in turn had been influenced by Connie Boswell, and her voice teacher Grace Raine advised Day to deliver ballads "as if whispering in her lover's ear"), I wanted to hear a more insightful take from Oberlin on the qualities of Day's voice and talent that so impressed her and made her idol one of the best female pop singers of the last century. But the show's flaws were merely an afterthought once Oberlin offered her encore, a tender, graceful rendition of the Isham Jones/Gus Kahn ballad "I'll See You In My Dreams" (which was also the title of the 1951 film bio of lyricist Gun Kahn, in which Day played Kahn's wife and musical inspiration, Grace LeBoy).
So once again, I love Karen Oberlin. But now my love's no secret anymore.