As affairs go, this foursome is plummy, but without scandal. Karen Oberlin’s tribute to the multitalented Ginger Rogers was showcased at Rogers’ Centennial Celebration, Boston University, while Steve Ross’s highly successful Songs of Fred Astaire (Off Broadway, London, on tour) framed his admiration for that incomparable artist. Neither performer had a partner with whom to explore the legendary relationship. Until now.
With an appropriate excerpt from “I Won’t Dance”, Ross, sporting a wing tip collar and tux and Oberlin swathed in a silver, sequin gown, opine “Isn’t It a Lovely Day?” (to be caught in the rain…) It’s a playful song. They flirt. She mellifluously scats, he executes a terrific piano arrangement in which musical weather becomes a character.
“Like any married couple, we agreed about everything to do with this show,” Oberlin quips. A frothy “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” follows as if a game of tag, you’re it. Later, the celebrants’ wry rapport is manifest with “A Fine Romance.” When they have fun, we have fun.
“Embraceable You” (Girl Crazy), “which put Rogers on the map” was choreographed by Astaire, then working in another show. Oberlin offers it with warmth and restraint. The verse of “But Not For Me”: Don’t want to hear from any cheerful Pollyannas/Who tell me love will find a way, it’s all bananas… sounds like “get off my back.” Even after melody leads, part of the lyric is spoken. Towards the end, one can almost hear a sob. A skillful arc.
Ross’s “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” is as insouciant a version as can be heard on a contemporary stage. The “blue pajamas” that got this song banned from the airwaves elicits a small “Ah” from this eloquent artist. Inflection is innately pristine. “After You” is lovely and moving from its rhetorical question to the waltzy music box bridge.
An amusing anecdote about Rogers, Darryl Zanuck and cutting up in the chorus has Oberlin delivering a version of “We’re In the Money” (Gold Diggers of 1933) in Pig Latin that even consummate tongue-twister Danny Kaye would admire.
“I’ll Be Hard to Handle,” sung with the lusty brio of a femme fatale, is delivered up front and personal, out among an appreciative audience. Bravo on the lights.
Ross’s piano rendition of “Begin the Beguine” is one of the most evocative you’ll ever hear. Courageously without vocals, the composition is allowed to breathe exposing every bit of sumptuous texture and melody, conjuring Noel and Gertie, Scottie and Zelda, Cole and Linda. The vocal of his tango-influenced “Night and Day” brims with such visceral yearning, I find my breathing slows. Artistically self-demanding, Steve Ross should be pleased.
“Puttin’ On the Ritz,” and “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” elicit tapping feet, bobbing heads and smiles of recognition from a club filled with fans. “Only When You’re in My Arms” is one of several numbers featuring jaunty harmony. And, yes, we’re treated to a smidgen of “The Continental.” Both performers can sell a ballad. Ross’s are intimate while Oberlin wants to share. Ross wears wit and cynicism like second skin. Oberlin, who’s experienced at playing the ingénue, clearly finds humor a cherry on top.
Patter is minimal and informative. Each artist has a solo segment which eschews otherwise celebrated collaboration. An increase of duets would add to freshness and appeal. The late in show gown change is gratuitous.
Cheek to Cheek is charming, swanky, and playful with a dash of vinegar.
Cheek to Cheek
Karen Oberlin & Steve Ross Sing Astaire and Rogers
Directed by Walter Willis
Next performance July 17. Book now.