Ruth Carlin: Kaleidoscope Eyes

Ruth Carlin

Kaleidoscope Eyes

Don’t Tell Mama, NYC, February 17, 2018

Reviewed by Randolph B. Eigenbrode for Cabaret Scenes

Ruth Carlin
Photo: John Quilty

There’s an almost clichéd expectation that cabaret performers are larger-than-life raconteurs—brimming with color and commotion. Ruth Carlin, in contrast, possesses a gentle and seemingly subdued persona, revealing she was a “shy, quiet kid.” Now, some time later, that same unassuming quality actually allows her the freedom to spin the focus from singer to song, using the lyrics and text as the program’s highlight.

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For a self-described “wordsmith,” Carlin indeed deals in metaphor and imagery like a topnotch Sarah Lawrence grad, but where does an evening like this all lead?

With a title like Kaleidoscope Eyes, the evening naturally favored pieces complex in language and rich in storytelling: “The Gallery” (Joni Mitchell); “Sometimes It Snows in April” (Prince/Wendy Melvoin/Lisa Coleman); and “Fortress Around Your Heart” (Sting). Each paints a portrait of love lost and wistful longing which Carlin subtly illuminates in her interpretations with almost dangerous restraint. She gently strokes the lyrics, yet such moderation doesn’t always draw the audience in. “Patterns,” perhaps Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire’s most abstruse creation, seems better suited to a performer whose strength lies in character development. Carlin brings an almost dreary sentiment to the piece, which explores themes of disappointment and entrapment, and her stasis never quite allows for the drive of the song’s psychological ping-pong match.

Other choices fare better. “April in Fairbanks” (Murray Grand), long associated with such comedy-savvy performers like Jane Connell and Dody Goodman, actually seems to find an unexpected humanity from Carlin’s soft-handed approach.

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Here she allows herself to have a bit of fun, still gentle on the punchline, but, with music director Paul Greenwood’s walrus-wail sound effects, we are charmed.

There were moments of yearning, anguish and hope, but it was when Carlin brought herself to the piece that the journey seemed complete. As an encore she presented the self-penned “Together,” resonating most deftly. She looked out into the audience’s faces for the first time and the coloring in her phrasing seemed to match the intensity of the lighting that had silhouetted the space throughout the evening. Indeed, Carlin doesn’t serve virtuosic vocals or possess a plucky personality, but instead allows herself to be the crucible for lyrical honesty. Over time, one can hope that Carlin can find a more diverse gradient of emotions behind these lyrics.

Randolph B. Eigenbrode

Randolph is the newest addition to the writing staff at Cabaret Scenes. He is a cabaret teacher, previously teaching with legend Erv Raible, and his students have gone on to success in the field with sold-out shows and many awards. He is also a director and that, combined with a knowledge of the art form and techniques that cabaret performing encompasses, makes him love reviewing NYC’s cabaret scene. When not catching the Big Apple’s crazy talent, Randolph loves 1970s variety shows, mall Chinese food, Meryl Streep films and a good cold glass of pinot grigio.