by Marilyn Lester
Karen Oberlin is a believer, and she wants you, too, to know the expressive and melodic power of composer/songwriter/pianist/singer Randy Newman’s work. Thus, with a smart, enjoyable pastiche of Newman songs, from the sweet to the barbed, she shares her passion for the music, making her case for Newman love (“bad” and good) most convincingly. The wisely chosen opening number, “I Love to See You Smile,” represents Newman in a joyful mode. The jazzy, up-tempo arrangement had feet tapping – a shrewd way to slip into some of Newman’s more characteristic melancholia, such as “Every Time It Rains.”
Newman, who began writing at age 17, and is now in his early 70s, has produced a body of work encompassing a range of styles, almost completely lyric-driven. With little narrative to her show, Oberlin has allowed those lyrics to speak for themselves. Her choices also permit her to focus on her story-telling abilities, the quality of her fine voice being a given. As a Newman interpreter, Oberlin has shot like an arrow to the center of his work, hitting bulls eye after bulls eye, especially with the aching “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” the mordant “It’s Lonely at the Top,” and the hard-driving “It’s Money That I Love” and “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore.” Another Newman hallmark is biting, razor-sharp political commentary/ satire, which is often as funny as it is bone-chillingly alarming. Oberlin tackles this Newman genre with gusto, breezing through the hilarious and cheeky “Korean Parents,” the edgy “The Great Nations of Europe,” the unnerving “Sail Away” and the terrifying “Political Science.”
Newman, Oberlin explains, not only wrote for himself and for others, but also entered the “family business” of film scoring (three uncles and four cousins are composers for the screen). Three instrumental sections from Newman’s scoring endeavors were performed by Music Director/pianist, Tedd Firth, with bassist Steve Doyle. Selections from Ragtime, Awakenings and The Natural showcased Firth’s dynamic approach to the keys – firm, assured playing combined with a not incongruent delicate, light touch, which sends each note soaring into a euphonious stratosphere. Firth’s imaginative arrangements of the songbook gave a creative touch to Newman’s, which tend to be measured and repetitive. The resulting dynamism in numbers such as “Easy Street,” with a bouncy, lyrical rhythm, provided a zestful accompaniment to Oberlin’s melody line.
Newman’s ballads (so often sad), such as “When She Loved Me” were handled with sensitivity by Oberlin. Another high point of the set was “One More Hour,” using an echo recording device which allowed Oberlin to create herself thrice over for a Piaf-like rendition of the song. “Losing You” represented the perfect vehicle for Oberlin’s solid vocal abilities. She’s a singer who delivers her material with clarity and power and with intelligence toward story-telling and modulating her volume. Ending the set was “Feels Like Home,” which evolved into a sing-along. Not only did this closer come full circle to a happy note, but putting down her mic, revealed the Oberlin voice to be as true au natural as it is with enhancement. By the end of Bad Love, Oberlin had made her case. Randy Newman may not be a household name, but this recipient of numerous awards and honors has produced a very worthy and multi-faceted body of work which truly speaks for itself and to which attention must be paid.
Bad Love: The Randy Newman Songbook, January 4 and
February 8 – 7 PM
The Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd St., New York, NY 10010, 212-206-0440, www.metropolitanroom.com