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CABARET LIFE NYC: KAREN OBERLIN and SEAN HARKNESS Concoct Romantic Musical Chemistry at the Metropolitan Room


Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks

In the musical classic Guys & Dolls, the handsome and charming gambler Sky Masterson successfully seduces prim and proper bible thumper Sarah Brown to Havana, Cuba, and after a night on the town she giddily and a bit tipsily sings (during "If I Were a Bell"), "Ask me how do I feel from this chemistry lesson I'm learning." Sky: "Chemistry?" Sarah: "Yes, chemistry!"

Cabaret performers thinking about launching duo shows could certainly take a lesson in chemistry from watching and listening to succulent singer Karen Oberlin and the great guitarist Sean Harkness in their current show, A Wish, which is based on their superb recently released CD of the same title, launched with two shows at Kitano on February 1 (to celebrate the CD release), and has taken up a once a month residency until late August at the Metropolitan Room (the next show is on June 25 at 9:30 pm). While theirs is not a romantic off-stage chemistry (both are quite happily married, thank you), on stage and in the recording studio Oberlin and Harkness have concocted a delicious musical interaction that conjures up romance to the nth degree.

The duo first felt the musical sparks flying on an impromptu duet during a benefit for Haiti earthquake survivors at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in February 2010. After they finished the sophisticated Guy Wood/ Robert Mellin ballad, "My One and Only Love" (which Oberlin calls her "favorite love song of all time" and which has been recorded by her idol Doris Day), Oberlin and Harkness knew they wanted to eventually record together. A year before they hit the studio in February 2013, Harkness provided his usual outstanding guitar support during Oberlin's sublimely romantic Valentine's Night solo show at the Metropolitan Room, Stringing Along With Love (which I reviewed for Cabaret Scenes Magazine), which included a few of the songs that ultimately made it onto the CD.

While their performance of A Wish was charming at the Kitano, the romantic lighting and sensual sound at the Metropolitan Room made the more intimate venue an ideal fit for the show on May 14. The duo performed 12 of the CDs 13 cuts and a few more appropriate treats that showcased Oberlin's smooth, sexy, and slightly jazzy vocals, and Harkness' hybrid of pop, jazz, and Latin guitar riffs. The song that opened the show (and the CD), "I'll String Along With You" couldn't be more in Oberlin's vocal pocket (see video below) and segued beautifully (as well as lyrically) into a bluesy, soulful "More Than You Know," featuring a mid-song guitar riff from Harkness that was almost country in flavor.

One of cabaret's finest instrumentalists, Harkness possesses a unique ability to stand out individually on a song, yet blend in with and support his singing teammate at the same time. His guitar sounded like it was telling secrets during Oberlin's sweet and intimate rendition of "The Kind of Man a Woman Needs" (the Michael Leonard/Herbert Martin song for the musical, The Yearling). The Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II classic, "All The Things You Are" (not on the CD) isn't a song you'd normally think of as a guitar piece, but Harkness nifty accompaniment was a subtle as Oberlin's vocal. Harkness even provided smooth and supportive background vocals on a lovely version of Paul Simon's "Train in the Distance."

Oberlin's uncanny Doris Day-like tones and inflections were apparent on the wistful "Do You Think This Happens Every Day?" (lyrics by Karen's husband David Hajdu/music by Fred Hersch), on Burton Lane and Yip Harburg's "Poor You," and on the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields song, "Remind Me." There were undertones of the George Gershwin classic "Summer Time," during Paul McCartney's "My Valentine," which featured Oberlin cooing the song along at her willowy and seductive best. She incorporated a slightly jazzy vocal arrangement for Joni Mitchell's "Love," a number during which it seemed Harkness was totally improvising based on where Oberlin was taking the song-and vice versa. (This was also the case on Harkness' wonderfully jazzy, up-tempo arrangement of Paul McCartney and John Lennon's "Blackbird," which the duo featured at the Kitano show.) And on the title song for the show and CD, A Wish (Music by Fred Hersch/lyrics by Norman Winstone), the blonde and adorable Oberlin was the epitome of angelic sweetness.

But if there was one number in the set where the Oberlin/Harkness chemistry was palpable and on full display, it was on their fun, up-tempo finale with the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn number (ironically not on the CD), "I'm Checking Out, Goombye." Hopefully, this charming musical couple won't be checking out on each other any time soon because at this rate there may be duo show cabaret awards in their future. Ask me how to describe this whole beautiful Oberlin/Harkness thing? Well, if I were a bell I'd go ding-dong, ding-dong ding! Actually, I think I just did.

Karen Oberlin and Sean Harkness will perform their duo show, A Wish, at the Metropolitan Room (34 West 22nd Street) on June 25 (9:30 pm), July 30 (7 pm), and August 20 (7 pm). For reservations, call: 212-206-0440.

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