With almost twenty years of collaboration under their belts, vocalist Karen Oberlin and MD/pianist/arranger Tedd Firth have something to celebrate when reasons are scarce. Sharing selected songs from past shows out of Oberlin’s living room (with Tedd masked) allows the rest of us to enjoy their symbiotic partnership. Oberlin is so focused and open, you’d think she was born to the camera.
The concert opens with Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower is A Sometime Thing” (from their tribute show Sisters in Strayhorn with Tammy McCann). Firth’s textural arrangement – all dappled sun and butterflies – supports Oberlin’s deeply sensual vocal.
“I want to start at the beginning,” our hostess says. “I was Off Broadway doing Our Sinatra and in need of a musical director. Tony DeSare recommended Tedd who looked 12! As soon as he played, however, that beauty and sensitivity… Our first, and still most requested show was a tribute to Doris Day.” “Put ’em in a Box, Tie ’em with a Ribbon, and Throw ’em in the Deep Blue Sea” (Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn from Romance on the High Seas) arrives bright and dancy. …Not for me, all that ssssstttufffff… she sings, hand up, fisted fingers turned in…The dreams that ruin your sleep…”
“Day’s favorite film to make was Calamity Jane and she recorded Annie Get Your Gun with Robert Goulet, so we thought we’d put together the two pistol-packing mamas.” “Secret Love” (Sammy Fain/Paul Frances Weber) is an elegant foxtrot. Oberlin clasps her hands, closes her eyes, and exhales. During “I Got Lost in His Arms” (Irving Berlin) she seems joyous, overwhelmed. We believe every word.
“Daydreaming” was discovered in André Previn’s catalog. Savored lyrics emerge languid as a stretching cat. Music is delicately jazz tinted. Out of Yip Harburg’s canon we hear “Last Night When We Were Young” (Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg) in candid parlando. Firth tickles our heartstrings. There’s stillness in the room after this selection. “Harburg believed art should be in service of improving the human condition,” Oberlin notes, citing “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” and his tackling racism in Finian’s Rainbow. Her message is clear.
Harburg was also up for unadulterated fun. With “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” (Harburg/Harold Arlen, from At the Circus), the artist shows that she is, too. Posing, Oberlin makes her “la, las” coquettish (without going over the top). When censors sought to cut the song from the film, Groucho and Co. literally got on their knees to beg its inclusion. “So out of desperation, Harburg wrote a last verse that saved the lady’s virtue.” (Lydia gets married.) ‘A sparkling rendition.
From the Oberlin/Firth show Confound Me, we hear the timely “All But You” (Renee Rosnes/David Hajdu), a storysong in which someone is missing – seen in photos when not there, recollected, conjured. It’s wistful and a bit rueful. An Elvis Costello tribute yields “Veronica,” written about Costello visiting his proud “gran” who had dementia. Firth’s arrangement is grounded then elusive, anxiously grasping for reality, wondering whether it’s worth it. Oberlin delivers the unvarnished empathy of an Elia Kazan film. ‘Beautiful.
“The next show centered on Randy Newman.” Firth plays “Dexter’s Tune” from the film score of Awakenings. One wants to lie on one’s back in the music as if it were clover. His sky is grey. Oberlin follows with “When She Loved Me,” a doll’s song from Toy Story II. She makes you want to cradle her.
Emotion is palpable in this concert. The vocalist inhabits each choice in character. Lyrics become monologues. Firth skillfully provides set, lights, and sound.
The evening closes with a mischievous version of “I’ll Be Hard to Handle,” (Jerome Kern/ Bernard Dougall) in wry salute to Ruth Bader Ginsberg, followed by the ballad, “We’ll Be Together Again” (Carl T. Fischer/Frankie Laine). Pure feeling, no fuss.
A splendid show, soon to be up on YouTube.
All unattributed quotes are Karen Oberlin. Photo Courtesy of the vocalist.