How would you like your own private one-to-one performance by a sophisticated singer? All right, so there are other people with you in the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel. But everyone seems to fade away as Karen Oberlin has a love affair with the music and lyrics she has chosen and sings so intimately that it’s as if her songs are meant only for you. The auspicious occasion is her “Heart and Soul” show (June 1-19, 2010), “A Centenary Celebration of Frank Loesser.” Oberlin provides a bit of background on Loesser and his work, and on the night I attended, she bantered with Jo Sullivan, Loesser’s widow, who was in the audience witnessing the affectionate tribute.
Super smoothness characterizes Oberlin’s program, abetted significantly by John Weber, musical director and pianist extraordinaire, and Sean Smith’s skill on bass. The show has been directed by Eric Michael Gillett. Nearly all of the selections are with both lyrics and music by Loesser, although as duly noted, he had collaboration on some numbers.
Oberlin has an added quality—her good looks and self-assured manner. She is blonde and elegant in her form-fitting black gown, decorated simply with a glittering flower shaped pin, and wearing teardrop earrings. She sets the bar for her purity of tone and interpretation at the outset with “If I Were a Bell” from “Guys and Dolls,” sung with utmost clarity and attention to detail. She liltingly sings such ballads as “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” (music in this case by Jule Styne), “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” from “Guys and Dolls,” and “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So” from the 1947 film “Perils of Pauline.”
Although Oberlin avoids trying to pump up her performance with glossy showmanship, she demonstrates how much fun she can have with certain numbers. There is Loesser’s 1941 whimsical spoof on the practice of songwriters appropriating classics and turning them into pop numbers—“Then I Wrote the Minuet in G.” She playfully sings “Bloop, Bleep!” and “Rumble, Rumble, Rumble,” and scores entertainingly with “Hamlet,” a satirical rendering of the Bard’s play that Loesser wrote for Betty Hutton for the 1949 film “Red, Hot and Blue.”
Recalling how a switch was made for “I Believe in You” in the 1961 musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Oberlin recounts how the leading character came to sing the song to himself while looking into a mirror instead of it being sung as originally planned with the leading lady singing to him. (I still have visions of how gleefully and egotistically Robert Morse performed the number in the show.) Oberlin adds charm to her egoistic celebration as she sings while pretending to peer into her imaginary mirror.
After dispensing a another bit of history, Oberlin sings “Traveling Light,” a song cut from “Guys and Dolls,” and “Wanting to be Wanted,” cut from “Most Happy Fella.”
She also does something unusual for her encore. Reaching once again into the fertile “Guys and Dolls,” Oberlin returns after extensive applause to sing “More I Cannot Wish You” without amplification. The utter clarity invites speculation as to how effective she could be singing even more numbers with her natural, un-miked voice.
The 100th anniversary of Frank Loesser’s birth occurs on June 29th, 2010. He is credited with writing more than 700 songs and five Broadway musicals. And his recognition includes a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” as well as an Oscar for the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” from “Neptune’s Daughter,” another Loesser opus to which Oberlin does justice. Honoring the prolific composer and lyricist could not be in better hands. And I’ve only cited a sampling from the generous program she performs. At the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th Street. Reservations: 212-419-9331 or firstname.lastname@example.org