“When Richard Rodgers first played `Manhattan’ for the main man in the music business,” Karen Oberlin begins, his reaction was “There’s nothing here.’ Richard Rodgers was so depressed, he considered returning to his job as a salesman. Fortunately the song met with success in The Garrick Gaieties fixing a situation that might have aborted one of our iconic songwriting teams.
“Larry Hart was a complicated man, brilliant but different, ebullient but sad…” Oberlin’s keenly articulate portrait of the lyricist goes on to describe not only his talent, but insecurity concerning appearance, anxiety about being gay and Jewish, romanticism, vulnerability and extreme depression that created erratic behavior. She aptly notes he considered himself an outsider, conjecturing this gave the writer perspective on the human condition. Oddly, Oberlin never uses the word “alcoholic” which fueled Hart and drove him to an early grave.
“Dancing on the Ceiling” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” arrive smitten. Arms bent, hands forward, fingers splayed as if making an appeal, Oberlin showcases breathing as an important element in phrasing/expressing emotion. John Di Martino’s arrangement of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” is Country Club Latin, piano emerges dancey. Brush on cymbal (Ray Marchica) acts as subtle vertebrae. An occasional spoken lyric adds conversational tone. Back of throat hmmm seems to indicate savoring.
Karen Oberlin, Steve Doyle
“Oh Lord,” apparently an earlier version of “Blue Moon” is paired with the latter. A curiosity, the song is unworthy of space in a show that might profitably be cut by 15 minutes. A lovely rendition of “This Funny World” is paired with the only selection not by Rodgers and Hart jolting us from the universal to the contemporary.
A medley of three urbane, witty love songs begins with only Steve Doyle’s cool, rhythmic bass accompanying Oberlin. The pair are swell together. More please. Through Michael Feinstein, the artist is able to debut “It Never Happened Before”: Why must my heart tear itself apart/It never happened before/Your every word’s a kiss to me/What in the world did this to me?…which morphs into “My Heart Stood Still.” Oberlin sincerely addresses “him” at the back of the room. The second song fades to an evocative whisper. Di Martino treads delicately.
Observed as particularly autobiographical “Nobody’s Heart” (belongs to me), the last song Hart wrote with Rodgers, and “Glad To Be Unhappy” are engagingly heartfelt. The songs seem married. Oberlin relaxes into a snappy “The Lady is a Tramp,” relating to her audience with eye contact and fluid movement. That she otherwise sways and bounces makes her sympathy infectious. A brief encore of “My Funny Valentine” begins beautifully a capella leaving us with a warm shhhh.
Karen Oberlin is a smart and appealing performer. Her appreciation of and approach to Lorenz/Larry Hart is sensitive and sound. Style, however, is challenged here by complicated vocal pivots with which she sometimes appears ill at ease. Less might just be more.
Karen Oberlin – Bewitched: The Life and Lyrics of Lorenz Hart
Tedd Firth – Arrangements John Di Martino – Piano
Ray Marchica -Drums, Steve Doyle-Bass
All songs by Rodgers and Hart except one
Birdland Jazz Club