Karen Oberlin and Tedd Firth on the occasion of what would have been Doris Day’s 99th Birthday.
“I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World” (Henderson/Lewis/Young) Oberlin begins hap, hap, happy. Piano is half chords, half swing. The Gershwins’ “A Foggy Day” is next. Vocal has the light touch of brushes, a back end hushhh. Accompaniment is luxurious.“…and suddenly (big puzzled breath), I saw you there and in foggy London Town the sun was shining…” “Day by Day” (Stordahl/Weston/Cahn) arrives dancy and longlined as Cyd Charisse’s extended legs. The singer’s in love and intoxicated.
Oberlin tells us about Day’s background: She was born Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father, a choirmaster and piano teacher, was only interested in classical music and personally very aloof; her mother a vivacious woman who loved popular music. The artist began as a dancer, creating a partner act, touring the local circuit. A car accident ended that career aspiration. While recovering, she started to sing along with the radio, learning songs, timing, and tone. Her delighted mother found a singing teacher. Natural talent was apparent.
Day landed jobs on WLW radio and at a local restaurant. Barney Rapp heard her on the radio and offered her a spot with his band. It was then she met her first husband, a trombonist who turned out to be abusive. With the help of her mother, as soon as her son was born, Day fled and divorced. “She now had three people to support and thought she lost her life’s dream of a husband and family,” Oberlin notes. Later we learn about a second marriage ended by a letter and a third that left the film and recording star deeply in debt. No wonder she turned to animals.
“Sentimental Journey” (Brown/Homer/Green) was recorded in 1945 with the Les Brown Band (before it became Les Brown and His Band of Renown). It was a big hit, especially with demobilizing soldiers who voted her “the woman with whom they’d most like to take a slow boat to China.” Oberlin’s rendition is aptly dreamy. “My heart could be so yearny…” (Her shoulders rise and drift down.) Piano strolls. An appealing jazz-tinted instrumental follows.
“You’ll know this one” introduces “Que Sera Sera” from the Hitchcock thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. Apparently Day thought it was “a silly little kids’ song.” “’All due respect, she was so wrong about it,” Oberlin remarks. It’s a wonderful arrangement. Firth weaves musically colored memories through the simple melody. “Join with me here,” the vocalist encourages. We grew up with this song. It’s hard not to sing along even alone at home.
At a Hollywood party, Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn heard Day sing and nudged her into a screen test that led to the romantic musical comedy Romance on the High Seas. The vocalist was shocked when she got the role, telling director Michael Curtiz she had no acting experience. He said he liked that “she was honest,” not afraid to admit it, and he wanted someone who “looked like the All-American Girl.” Oberlin sings two Styne/Cahn songs from the film, “Put ’em in a Box, Tie ’em with a Ribbon (and Throw ’em in the Deep Blue Sea)” and “It’s Magic.”
The first is breezy and insouciant. Towards the end of the show, “Come to Baby, Do!” (James/Miller) takes flirting one step further towards saucy, arriving with exuberant movement. The second is all shadows and reflections. Tantalizing emotion gradually inflates the vocalist until at last, gentle scat takes us out.
From Love Me or Leave Me, the Ruth Etting story, we’re treated to “I’ ll Never Stop Loving You” (Cahn/Brodzsky.) It’s quiet. Oberlin is a romantic. She excels at this kind of material. “Secret Love” (Fan/Webster) from Day’s favorite film, Calamity Jane, exudes muted glow. While accompaniment is bubbly, lyrics remain a persuasive ballad. “I Got Lost in His Arms” (Berlin) from Annie Get Your Gun, a musical Day recorded, but in which she never acted enters successively tender, surprised, thrilled.
Oberlin offers a duet of “I’d Rather Be with You” (with her graduating son Emery Hajdu. A better song would’ve provided a more able showcase. Though Emery is not camera confident, he’s cute and expressive. (Alfred/ Comstock with added lyrics by Karen and Emery.)
“Close Your Eyes” (Petkere) is sultry and dark. In Andre and Dory Previn’s “Yes,” the pause between “If he asks me” and the answer palpably swells with anticipation. Encore songs “We’ll Be Together Again” (Fischer/Laine) and “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (Jones/Kahn) are heartfelt.
Karen Oberlin and Tedd Firth have presented this show all over the country and abroad for 20 years. In 2019, they performed in Carmel, California for the star’s official 97th Birthday Celebration. Information might be edited to better enjoy the music, but selections are well chosen, interpretation pearly. My admiration for Firth has only increased over the years. These plush, original arrangements never bury, but rather enrich and flesh out material, ever mindful of the vocalist.
“Doris Day (1922- 2019) didn’t care about her legacy. She didn’t want a funeral, a memorial, or a gravestone. She just wanted people to support The Doris Day Animal Foundation.” (Oberlin)