Karen Oberlin- Bad Love: The Randy Newman Songbook

0082 Metropolitan Room Karen Oberlin 7.27.16

 

by Alix Cohen

 

Depend on Karen Oberlin to create a show that is 1. Personal and 2. Iconoclastic. Honest choices (reflected in honest performance) never pander to a presumed market. The most recent addition to her oeuvre, with fine musicians MD/pianist Tedd Firth and Steve Doyle on bass, centers on composer/lyricist Randy Newman. Her subject, nominated for 20 Academy Awards (winning 2), the winner of 6 Grammys, 3 Emmys, and the official title Disney Legend, is best known for film scores and songs with caustic, often satirical attitude.

 

Oberlin opens big with a song usually rendered low key and light. Her playful, flirty interpretation of “I Love to See You Smile” rides on insinuating, big-hipped underbeat, exaggerated ssss, slight shoulder wiggle, and finger snaps. It works. The room brightens.

0122 Metropolitan Room Karen Oberlin 7.27.16

 

Next comes a smooth “Easy Street” with a (Bob) Fosse vibe and dark corners.

 

A tandem “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” and “Every Time It Rains” feels natural. Oberlin offers a poignant lag in the phrasing of the former which is partly, effectively spoken. When she segues into the second song, her throat opens as if, having anticipated the worst, it’s occurred. Musical arrangement offers deft, measured complexity. The well known “Sail Away” is introduced as “a little ditty about the slave trade” (few realize this.) Oberlin perceptively delivers the number like a come-on packaged as an evangelistic hymn. Fingers beckon, piano repeats circular themes, bass acts as ballast.

 

A highlight of this evening, “One More Hour”: One more hour/One more day/One more midnight/Fade away… is unexpectedly performed with onstage overdubbing of Oberlin’s voice, creating appealing backup counterpoint. The artist has made an extremely brief song hypnotic.

0129 Metropolitan Room Karen Oberlin 7.27.16

I can only conjecture that the pairing of “It’s Money That I Love” and “You Can Leave Your Hat On” reflects two power plays. The first is deftly arranged like hot-damn-gospel. Oberlin swivels down and shakes her shoulders. The anachronistic word ‘wicked’ comes to mind. Firth lets go with serious boogie woogie. Doyle bites his lip, knees bending and straightening. “…Hat On” can’t help but be suggestive and Oberlin does suggestive really well, but this version’s a tad too fast for lyrics to fully impact.

 

Four instrumental parentheses from Newman’s film scores are evocative and beautifully played, not that any of us need be convinced of Tedd Firth’s virtuosity. Perhaps these were included to round out an impression of the subject’s mercurial abilities.

 

During “When She Loved Me,” a doll’s tender song about her human owner, Oberlin embodies the character’s thrill and gratitude at love extended, palpably singing from her heart. Phrasing is impeccable. The same can be said of “Feels Like Home.” Musical arrangement embroiders around Oberlin’s all-American sampler. Unfortunately this song also epitomizes my greatest issue with tonight’s performance: the artist doesn’t look at her audience. Though she often inhabits lyrics, communicating feelings from the inside out, she’s not sharing. And we feel deprived.

 

Caveats: I’m baffled by inclusion of “The Great Nations of Europe,” “Korean Parents,” and “Political Science” which, though timely, are similar, not among the writer’s best and do little to reflect Oberlin’s talents. The show has no vertebrae, emerging a higgledy piggledy collection without musical or narrative structure.

 

Karen Oberlin is a talented vocalist with insight and deep feelings. This show has much to offer and some to rethink.

 

Photos by Steve Friedman

The Metropolitan Room   34 West 22 Street 212 206-0440

Other Performances: September 14, October 20, November 21

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