When all else fails, music always saves the day. In her fifth engagement at the swanky Algonquin Oak Room, veteran song stylist Sandy Stewart eschews the corny patter, loud twinkle gowns and “theme” restrictions that imprison so many cabaret acts these days, favoring perfect phrasing from timeless classics by Kern, Berlin, Weill, Hammerstein and the Gershwins, filtered through a low-held bosom-level mike that rarely moves. As usual, she staples your attention to pure enchantment. “No. 1 son” Bill Charlap, one of the count-’em-on-one-hand jazz pianists who deserves to be called a prodigy, once again accompanies his mom with chords, musical phrases and amusing grace notes that embellish and enrich her sweet, no-nonsense vocal sensitivity. On “All in Fun” the sophistication of unrequited love speaks loud and clear at last. On “Tea for Two” she ditches the tired waltz time and turns the promise of domestic bliss into a counterpart to Charlap’s stride piano. Subtle and understated enough to make you concentrate on the lyrics, her exquisite phrasing on Harold Arlen’s “Last Night When We Were Young” captures two distinctly different moods, building from girlish optimism to the mature disillusionment that only comes with life experience. Until she sings the jaded E.Y. Harburg line “Today the World Is Old” you have no idea how old it really is. She builds moods and weaves spells. How it is to have and lose when “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”; how it hurts like hell “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” At a time when the music business has just about hit rock bottom, singers with obvious talent surrender to crass commercialism and the ideals are compromised to make money, Sandy Stewart has integrity. Her voice just about kills me.
Meanwhile, sunny newcomer Karen Oberlin is turning a klieg light on otherwise gloomy Sunday nights at the popular new Metropolitan Room. Her celebration of the wicked wit and heartbreaking insight of legendary lyricist E. Y. (“Yip”) Harburg is better than her last act, a tribute to Doris Day, and she’s singing with Shinola. Blessed with a crystalline voice and a face to match, she’s as lovely to look at as she is to hear, and diversity fills the air. The wistful longing in the gorgeous, rarely heard ballad “Here’s to Your Illusions,” introduced by Barbara Cook in the 1951 flop Flahooley, is thrillingly matched with the randy, rummy humor in Yip’s outrageous lyrics to Groucho Marx’s lurid, hilarious theme song, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” In keeping with Harburg’s famed left-wing political ideology (he was blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, which made him a hero on Broadway), Ms. Oberlin even adds a verse about George W. Bush that, though he didn’t write it, Yip most assuredly woulda if he coulda. Born in 1896, a good year for songwriters, he was from an era when they savored words and knew the difference between sentiment and sentimentality. Webster’s Dictionary was his Internet. Ms. Oberlin understands this, and the words ring true and funny and flawless, from the Depression anthem “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” to love songs like the radiant, obscure “Sunset Tree,” written with Jule Styne and ruined in the Broadway musical Darling of the Day when it was sung by … Vincent Price!!! Breathless when the song is as romantic as a country road, then forceful and full-speed-ahead when the mood turns onto a musical freeway, Ms. Oberlin and her pals, pianist Tedd Firth and bassist Sean Smith, provide a jazzy canvas for the Harburg catalog. This show should have a much longer run to accommodate the traffic. With only one more on Sunday, Jan. 27, my advice is to call early. Karen Oberlin is packing the joint from wall to wall.