- CHARITY BENEFIT
Reviewed by Joe Regan Jr.
You may think you’ve seen multi-award winning singer Karen Oberlin before but take my word for it, her new show “I’d Be Hard To Handle: Songs of Daring Dames” is like nothing she has ever done before and it is spectacular and so very sexy, a word I don’t think I would ever use to describe any of her previous acts. Yes, she is beautiful, and she sings romantic ballads better than many current cabaret artists, but this show, which opened Tuesday at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, has a song list that ranges over 107 years and features trademarked songs from Eva Tanguay to Sophie Tucker to Bessie Smith to Leslie Gore; not a group of singers you would associate with Oberlin’s repertoire. Before I go any further, I must mention the superb arrangements of Jon Weber (at the piano) and the terrific backup of Tom Hubbard on the bass.
When Oberlin makes her initial entrance, she is wearing a gangster’s outfit, a coat, a slouch hat, a pasted on mustache, and something underneath that reveals her spectacular legs to upper thigh. The song is “Wives and Lovers,” and she roams the audience warning all the men in the audience they better beware of mistreating their women! With the big finish, she mounts the stage, rips off the mustache, hat and coat and reveals her trim body in a spangled covered, almost see through, short outfit. She pops right into Tanguay’s 1905 hit “I Don’t Care” defying anyone to judge her because she’s gonna be her own woman! She melds into Cole Porter’s “I’ve Still Got My Health” (1937) (written for Ethel Merman) and then Rodgers & Hart’s “Lady is a Tramp” (1940) with lots of choruses and then returns to “I Don’t Care.” The pattern has been set. This show is about strong women and some of these songs were written before women had equal rights.
Her first narrative is about the woman composer who was the first woman to be credited with a Broadway show. It’s Kay Swift who wrote Fine and Dandy with her then husband Paul James (actually a pseudonym), and she reveals that the marriage didn’t last because George Gershwin was the great love of her life. The song is a touch cookie song, “Nobody Breaks My Heart,” and Oberlin delivers it with all the defiant toughness of an independent woman.
Her next medley is from the artist known as Pink — Alicia Beth Moore and the first song is “Stupid Girls” and tough response to compliant women. Weber then sings another Pink song, “18 Wheeler,” about a trucker traveling and his womanizing and then the two of them do a brilliant reprise of both songs sung in tandem.
A Dave Crawford song, “Young Hearts Run Free,” is about a married woman whose husband is unfaithful warning other women but she stops short of finishing that song to sing the brilliant Gordon Jenkins’ song from the television version of Manhattan Tower introduced by the late Helen O’Connell, the defiant “Married I Can Always Get.” Very few singers recorded this song but it is full of how much this woman can do without marriage because she wants to sample the pleasures of every man available. Oberlin defies every man in the house to contradict her! “I will kiss any man who will kiss me first” is one of the lyrics. A very slow but telling Jerome Kern song (written with Bernard Dougal) “I’ll Be Hard To Handle,” including the verse that sets up her mate to the situation that she’s not going to be a submissive spouse.
That is followed by Leslie Gore’s 1963 hit, “You Don’t Own Me,” a startling song for the Sixties. And then Oberlin startles the audience by flipping over and standing on her head and singing “I’m A Woman!” The crowd went wild. She hops on the piano and tells how she admired Blossom Dearie … and does a stunning version of “Blossom’s Blues” mixed with “Peel Me a Grape!”
Michael Martin Brown’s crazy samba song “Lola Montez” tells about that independent woman’s life, becoming a major star performer, and capturing lovers all over the world. After Shel Silverstein’s “Ballad of Lucy Jordan” and Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree,” we get another Ethel Merman hit “I’ll Pay the Check” written by Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields.
Grabbing a black boa, Oberlin launches into the “mammoth medley” which starts and ends with Tucker’s “I’m The Last of the Red Hot Mamas” but includes a total of 13 songs sung by strong women in the 20th century.
Oberlin returns to Lorenz Hart, describing his sad life, and how he created great lyrics for women out of his despair. The song she sings, with amazingly strong and defiant feminine statements, is “A Lady Must Live” from 1931 and Oberlin sings it full stops out and receives a standing ovation from the audience.
She returns to Dorothy Fields for her encore. The song is the one from One Night in the Tropics which was done as a tango in that movie. Oberlin does her only ballad in the show, a slow and movingly strong “Remind Me,” sung simply and very effectively.
No one should miss this act!
Karen Oberlin’s “I’d Be Hard To Handle” runs every night this week through Saturday, July 28th at 8 PM. All shows have a $30 cover with $50 premium seats. In addition there is a $25 food and beverage minimum. There are select $40 covers with no drink or food minimum - Call l212 339-4095 for reservations or go in line at www.Feinsteinsatloewsregency.com and ticketweb.com
*Photos: Stephen Sorokoff