Cheek to Cheek: Steve Ross and Karen Oberlin continues at the Crazy Coqs, London until 29 November.
Gorgeous in gold, the sparkly, sequinned Karen Oberlin, every inch the classy blonde that Ginger Rogers played to smooth, sophisticated Fred Astaire in their ten-movie career as the 1930s dance darlings of Depression-era America, provides the wow factor to cabaret legend Steve Ross’ annual visit to the Crazy Coqs.
It is an inspired idea for this engaging duo, clearly on the same musical wavelength, to team up for this tribute to Fred and Ginger in a show that has already enjoyed a much-lauded outing at Manhattan’s plush 54 Below nightspot.
Ross, a 55-year cabaret veteran and longtime disciple of Astaire’s timing and style, lovingly performs songs like ‘Puttin’ On the Ritz’ and ‘Steppin’ Out With My Baby’ that have meant so much to him down the years.
As Astaire’s voice played second fiddle to his extraordinary dancing, so it is with Ross, whose virtuosity on the piano and unmatched repertoire of, and passion for, the Great American Songbook turn a pleasing but fairly average set of pipes into something so much more.
So while Oberlin flirts winningly through the audience with the sexy ‘I’ll Be Hard to Handle’ (from Roberta, the 1935 film that gave us the better-known ‘I Won’t Dance’), it is Ross, New York’s crown prince of cabaret, who earns the warmest applause of the evening with his thrilling piano-only version of ‘Begin the Beguine’.
The inclusion of the Cole Porter classic in this form is justified here because Astaire and Eleanor Powell (who became Fred’s co-star a year after he split with Ginger) danced so memorably to an instrumental version of it in The Broadway Melody of 1940.
Astaire and Rogers made nine movies together between 1933 and 1939, with Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time the following year, which spawned the Oscar-winning song ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ (Dorothy Fields-Jerome Kern), best remembered for the chemistry of their dancing, before reuniting ten years later for a tenth, The Barkleys of Broadway, the only film of theirs made in colour.
‘The Way You Look Tonight’ wasn’t the only Oscar song associated with the pair because two years earlier ‘The Continental’ from The Gay Divorcee was similarly garlanded. Ross and Oberlin’s take on both is part of a 75-minute joyride, the former as part of a mash-up from Swing Time that also features ‘A Fine Romance’ and ‘Pick Yourself Up’.
Two encores, Irving Berlin’s ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ (from Follow the Fleet) and George Gershwin’s ‘’S Wonderful’ (Astaire with Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face), send everyone home with a smile on their faces.
Rogers, better known as an actress and dancer, wasn’t the greatest singer of all time, but at least it is her voice you hear in those timelessly elegant black-and-white movies that helped raise spirits after the Great Depression, whereas her dance contemporaries Cyd Charisse and Powell generally needed to be dubbed.
Oberlin shows what Rogers could do long before her Astaire period when she sings ‘Embraceable You’ and ‘But Not For Me’, two memorable songs from Girl Crazy, the 1930 Gershwins musical she did with the debuting Ethel Merman.
The show turned the 19-year-old Ginger into an overnight star and paved the way for that never-to-be-forgotten partnership which entranced the world. Now Ross and Oberlin are seeing to it that, 80 years on, their songs stay on the map for a different generation.
One wonders, however, when the knowledgeable and engaging Ross finally shuts the lid on his immaculate piano who will keep alive and carry the torch for a world and lifestyle that no longer exist.