Karen Oberlin

November 17, 2009

“Birds Do It: Songs of the Natural World”

The Metropolitan Room  –  October 28, 29, November 5, 12

There is usually one standout moment in every well-crafted cabaret show. Sometimes it defines the purpose of the show. Other times it is just a personal favorite. However you decide on the standout moment in Karen Oberlin’s new show, for me it is an evocative pairing of “The Shadow of Your Smile” (Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster, from the film The Sandpiper) and Stephen Sondheim’s “I Remember” from the television special Evening Primrose. Both songs are from the same era, the 1960s. The first promises to always remember today and this special moment on the beach. The second song forwards ahead with “I Remember.” The promise of always remembering has arrived, but only in bits of memories. Nothing is quite as precise as it was that spring, not even a shadow of her smile. Arranged by Tedd Firth, the songs form a bittersweet remembrance, delivered by Oberlin with warmth and poignancy.

Karen Oberlin has the qualities of constantly trying new approaches and delivering songs with individuality. A few months ago, she was swinging the Doris Day songbook with a jazz band, and this current show ties into a theme of nature and flowers, autumn, and birds. Both shows come across with natural ease and without artifice.


With minimum patter, Oberlin delivers brief, quirky facts that obliquely connect to the upcoming selection. For example, a shark can smell a drop of blood from two and a half miles away. This snippet leads into Oscar Brown’s clever tale about “The Snake” and a trusting woman who befriends a reptile who acts according to his nature. Oberlin takes it right on the beat down a light, swingy path. Other up-tempo arrangements include “Let’s Do It” (Cole Porter), with some added updates — “Those who get swine flu, do it.

Bringing to mind Susanna McCorkle’s memorable version of “Waters of March,” Oberlin delivers her own positive take on the song, including some of the original Portuguese lyrics, as McCorkle did. Another natural choice for a nature show is Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “Mountain Greenery,” a zippy tune with dizzying rhymes that every jazz singer likes to perform

Her most effective selections reflect a deep investment in ballads. Oberlin’s stress on words and careful phrasing illuminate the essence of the song. In Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” she relishes the young Strayhorn’s wistful images of the “luscious, living, lovesome…lovely” daffodil, rose, azalea, gardenia. For the dark spirits of “Ill Wind” (Harold Arlen, Ted Koehler), Oberlin goes into lower more melancholy tones. Sean Smith on bass adds to the mood as does David Colbert’s dramatic lighting. “Everything Beautiful” by Mickey Leonard and Herbert Martin, lovely but not well known, is a fine inclusion.

One downside, however, comes in Oberlin’s opener, “The Glow-Worm” (Paul Lincke, Heinz Bolten-Backers, Lilla Cayley Robinson, Johnny Mercer). Interrupting her jazz-spirited arrangement, Oberlin pauses to comment on the line “You got a cute vest-pocket Mazda,” informing us that from 1909 to 1945, General Electric used the name “Mazda” for their incandescent light bulbs. Interesting point, but it disrupted the catchy swing of the tune.


About the Author