BWW Review: Jungr, DeLaria, Oberlin, Mulder: These 4 Females Focus on Songwriters and Love at Joe's Pub & Birdland Theater
My kind of double-header involves no bats, umpires, or catcher's mitts, but there were big hits and some home runs scoring big time as I attended both early and late shows the same night on Friday at at Joe's Pub downtown (Barb Jungr; Lea DeLaria) and was in midtown for both Sunday night acts at Birdland Theater (Karen Oberlin; Marissa Mulder). All except one in these four females were focused on male pop singer/songwriters who came to great notoriety in the 1960s and have had lasting impact. Accompaniment was just a dark-haired male pianist for blondes Jungr and Oberlin, while DeLaria with her own jet-black Mohawk had an all-female band and redhead Mulder had a male trio. Each act was air-raising and eyebrow-raising in some way.
No one could be more eyebrow-raising or bolder raising a middle finger to love than Lea DeLaria, the very "out" and very outrageous combo of comic and red hot singer with blue material in her comments. She takes no prisoners, raging at "love gone wrong" and anything else that ruffles her February feathers. It was Valentine's Day and the adventurous Pub allowed an antidote to the 24-hour period of lovey-dovey focus on sweethearts and flowers. Those attendees who were on a date were asked to raise their hands and then our brash star, still simmering in recovery from being dumped by her fiancee, turned on them: "How DARE you!!!?!?!!!" she screamed, taking mock offense at the coupled audience members rubbing their happiness in her tear-stained face. Her show, F*@#! LOVE, began and ended with her rejections of romance through entertainingly glb, brisk standard songs -- "Down with Love" and "Ev'rything I've Got (Belongs to You)." In between, she showed off her impressive scat-singing/jazz chops, rocked out, and went on rambunctious rampages about this and that, including sex and fools not suffered gladly, the musical "Cats," and liberally used the F word.
Lea DeLaria, LGBTQ visibility pioneer, is a hoot--fun, fierce, fearless (none of these is the F word in question). This smart smartass knows just how far to push before winking and balancing the screaming, screamingly funny stuff with wailing musical evidence that she can not just go on a tear, but tear the roof off. She opted to share the duties of talking and/or singing about love gone wrong with guests and band members. While this was kind of charming and admirable in intent, energy and engagement ebbed when the spotlight was turned over to those with less oomph and weaker song choices. Others in the crowd seemed more pulled into the variety platter, but I just wanted more of the more commanding fearless leader. But she had fun and played off them well, especially the diaper-wearing Cupid, who was carrying a bow and arrow and is also carrying a child. A pregnant Cupid is one thing, but you get more sting and zing in the poison-tipped arrows hurled with precise aim by Lea DeLaria who is on target in many ways.
Barb Jungr's committed performances of material by Bob Dylan, Jacques Brel, and herself make for a powerful set. Prowling and swirling about the stage, bending, grandly gesturing, with facial expressions that comment on the songs as visual asides, she is a wonder and whirling dervish. truly magnetic. Her delightfully quirky humor, with some cutely bristling impatience at the folly of human nature, is welcome comic relief between highly emotional, word-dense songs. BOB, BREL, AND ME is also the name of her latest CD, the disc's existence becoming the subject for the cleverest kind of sales pitch. (She acknowledges that many folks these days download music that is stored "somewhere in outer space.") Her Brel songs are not done in their original French, but she offers some alternate English translations and biographical info that inform how we hear his work, especially material written with the medical knowledge that his days were numbered. Her own "Sometimes," from her opera about the unlikely real-life subject of the relationship of a female tiger tamer and her roommate (the tiger) is a major emotional highpoint and suits her voice and vulnerable quality. Whether cheeky or choked-up with feeling, this artist (I don't use the word casually) commands attention and affection. The English accent of this welcome guest adds class and distinction. And what better-named pianist on Valentine's Day for someone who self-describes as "an incurable romantic" than a man with much heart: Mark Hartman. He matches her every punch and caress, crystalized when Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" switches on a dime from carefree bounce to an arresting wistfulness. Paul Revere's cry of "The British are coming!" may have been a warning, but when the Brits include the likes of likeable Barb Jungr, roll out the welcoming red carpet and be grateful.
Randy Newman --- the songwriter, film composer, and performer --- is a decades-spanning musical presence, presently noted for yet another Oscar nomination for the latest "Toy Story" sequel. And he often toys with us as a kind of satirical miracle, when presenting his own material from the point of view of varied and sometimes unsympathetic, politically incorrect characters he creates. Foolishness and prejudice is revealed when shoved into the spotlight, given voice. Taking on these characters, with disclaimers wisely intact, singer Karen Oberlin is both on the inside and outside, BAD LOVE is thus a show that is not classic cabaret sensibility at all; it's quite different from the standard approach of standards sung as if they are the singer's own feelings and perspectives revealed and embraced. The gentle, kind spirit, sunny attractiveness, and grace of this lady in classic black wardrobe with classic silver sparkle are hardly type-casting match for the gruff, melancholy, and sarcasm of many a Newman human portrait. But she jumps in for the best of both worlds, giving some ugly attitudes a caba-ray-of-hope. Her warm voice eases the way, a balm for the tough skin of the set-in-their-ways people, and certainly a contrast to Newman's own performances in his raspy, muttering manner.
Vocals included a tongue-in-cheek "Lonely at the Top" and the sincere heartbreaker "When She Loved Me" (a toy's story of better times), and then there was the smart idea to include samples of Newman's film scores where the singer's pianist, Ian Herman, shone best all on his own. (There were times in their teamwork where I felt either the sound balance was off or that things might have just benefited from a lighter touch on the keys and a touch more assertiveness in the singing.) As far as patter, the Oberlin approach seemed about right to bring in both long-time Randyphiles like myself and Newman newbies. As she's done in acts devoted to songwriter Frank Loesser, the late star Doris Day, and more, Karen Oberlin shows herself to be informed, without coming off as too "scholarly" or overly wordy or overly worshipful, Serene and stylish, she's a pleasure to spend time with ---and, to quote a Newman title, in her company, her chosen venue "Feels Like Home."
The second half of Sunday's double-header, coincidentally, featured the singer who began her first chapters to NYC cabaret mastery coached and directed by the early set's star Karen Oberlin. A more mature, thoughtful, calmer kind of Beatlemania enveloped Birdland's nest as Marissa Mulder and a sublime band made the songs of John Lennon and/or Paul McCartney resonate, shimmer, and gain weight and emotion. This was no mere romp through nostalgia; nor is the show a casual history lesson. The singer invests so much affection and admiration into her work, with a palpable yearning in the ballads and gets so deep into the music that it casts a spell and becomes intoxicating. The musicians' playing is all one could wish for and their prominent vocal harmonies make for a sublime soundscape. Mike Rosengarten (guitar), Ritt Henn (bass), and Jon Weber (piano, musical director) and the arrangements are the ideal mix of honoring the familiar blueprints and fresh energy, with sophistication added. The narrative put songs into context to enhance appreciation, making the sympathy projection in renditions of "Blackbird" and the ode to John's mother 'Julia" even more poignant. "Across the Universe" spread across the room like a magic potion, letting the audience relish the pure beauty. With all the information in print and mythologized, plus a large song catalogue, it must have been a daunting task to pick and choose what to include, but that only makes me hope fervently that this group has a wish list ready for a follow-up.