Karen Oberlin: Secret Love: The Life and Music of Doris Day

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Karen Oberlin

Secret Love: The Life and Music of Doris Day

B.J. Ryan’s Magnolia Room

Norwalk, CT, September 8, 2019

Reviewed by Jerry Osterberg for Cabaret Scenes

Karen Oberlin
Photo: Bill Westmoreland

It’s taken Karen Oberlin 18 years to get to Main Street. After first performing her tribute to Doris Day at New York’s Firebird on Restaurant Row in 2001, she took it to Nebraska, Paris, London, and twice to Carmel, California, Doris Day’s home for close to 40 years. Her most recent performance in Carmel was a highlight of Day’s 97th birthday, her last, earlier this year.

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With the always superb Alex Rybeck as music director, arrangements by Tedd Firth, and a recorded introduction by Doris Day, Oberlin made an impressive debut appearance at the Magnolia Room, a relatively new space in Norwalk, Connecticut, at 57 Main Street. With a catalog of over 600 recordings from which to choose, Oberlin selected her set well, featuring Day’s most successful hits along with other songs not so well known. Some might argue that by beginning as a band singer, Doris Day didn’t need to probe the depths of seriously romantic songs; Karen Oberlin might beg to differ, as she demonstrated that Day made the transition to being a soloist with plenty of authority.

During a 20-year career, Doris Day recorded many songs that charted, including 20 in the top 10, five of which ranked No. 1. Oberlin’s voice, which has become smokier and sexier over the years, possesses a richness and a radiance that show a deeper understanding of the lyrics. The repertoire included “Sentimental Journey,” Day’s first hit from 1945; “It’s Magic,” from her first feature film Romance on the High Seas; “Secret Love,” which emerged from Calamity Jane; and “Que Sera, Sera,” heard in perhaps the most memorable scene in the Hitchcock movie The Man Who Knew Too Much. The latter tune, given how deeply it’s engrained in the national fabric, presented a perfect opportunity for her to invite the audience to sing along, which is precisely what Oberlin did. Her followers, new and old, loved it!

After opening with a lively “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World,” Oberlin wove in three inspired pairings, “A Foggy Day” and “Day by Day” (the latter written by Paul Weston, and included on one of the two albums Day made with Weston’s orchestra: Day by Day and Day by Night); “Night and Day” partnered with “The Night We Called It a Day,” a standard written by Tom Adair and Matt Dennis; and “Secret Love,” was combined with “I Got Lost in His Arms.”

Although not every song in the set had a story, those that did included “I’ll Never Stop Loving You,” one of two songs composed expressly for the film Love Me or Leave Me. In one of her greatest dramatic roles, Day played the prohibition-era torch singer Ruth Etting. Written by Nicholas Brodszky and Sammy Cahn, the song earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. 

When she performed “I’d Rather Be with You,” a list song recorded by Jack Haskell and Day, Oberlin obviously needed a partner if the lyrics were going to make any sense. Fortunately, her son Emery Hajdu came to the rescue. Hajdu, who is currently a student at the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, proved to be an ideal foil to Oberlin; his responses had been slightly revised by his mother to replace references to Lana, Carroll, and Durbin with Britney, Beyoncé, and Taylor.

Karen Oberlin clearly does her homework. An engaging storyteller, she provided a reliable context for the music and personal drama in Doris Day’s life, and we came away knowing more than we had before. It’s also likely we  were introduced to songs not normally associated with Day.

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Having seen
Oberlin’s tribute to Day earlier, I can’t say what might have been different in the current outing, but I know for sure that I enjoyed both. She’s forever presenting new themes, while occasionally returning to a previous favorite. Karen Oberlin has worked hard to become the consummate artist she is. It’s been a joy to witness her growth, her ever expanding boundaries, and her progress to the top of her profession.

Jerry Osterberg

After decades in the banking field, singing in a chorale, and writing on just about every subject under the sun, Jerry left finance and decided to devote himself to the American Songbook. Countless workshops in singing and writing later, he began contributing articles to the New York Sheet Music Society and to write reviews and feature stories for Cabaret Scenes. Jerry is now the Contributing Editor for the monthly newsletter of the NYSMS, continues to perform in chorus, and is currently researching a biography of the late American pop singer Jo Stafford.