By Kevin Scott Hall
The Duplex – June 28, 30, July 25
In her new show, "SongMoments," Ruth Carlin showed herself to be a quirky, likeable singer true to her art and her heart. With her unique, cinnamon-tinged, tremulous alto, Carlin conveyed both strength and vulnerability in a program that displayed intelligent song choices from an interesting variety of songwriters ranging from John Bucchino to Irving Berlin to David Friedman to Maltby and Shire.
Entering the stage wearing a black dress with silver jewelry, Carlin began with the reflective "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday" (Paul Williams, Kenny Ascher), an unusual choice, perhaps, for an opening number. Although I was taken with her voice, her nerves showed: her eyes darted too much and there was generally too much movement in her face, as though she were trying to overcompensate for the nerves by working the gentle song too much.
After some introductory patter in which she talked about her shyness and how she began her artistic life as a poet at fifteen, her next selection, Murray Grand's "I Always Say Hello to a Flower," was much more effective. Her endearing, offbeat side came out as she sang about how much easier it is to talk to a flower than to a man in a suit.
In fact, the comic material served her well. Pam Peterson's parody lyrics to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn's "Memory"—about the singer's faulty one—was an audience favorite, as was "I Wanted to Change Him" (Jule Styne, Comden & Green), about a woman's desire to change her man only to realize she wants to change him back. In each case, though it was the material that made the number work more than it was the performer. Carlin has a tendency to mug and overact, which robs the comic songs of even bigger laughs and the serious ones of more-heartfelt pain. Less is more, and when she fully relaxed into the songs, the meaning came through much more clearly. "Long, Long Time" (Gary White) was particularly trenchant. When she amusingly spoke of not quite being a spring chicken and of her history of reading self-help books, it was the perfect lead-in to another comic gem, "I Regret Everything" (Bill Burnett, Peggy Sarlin). Carlin is not afraid to poke fun at herself, and that's a nice trait. Best of all was when she closed with her own composition, "Door to Door," a beautiful song about three generations of Carlin women. Perhaps because it was her own material she didn't have to work as hard, and an attentive hush fell over the crowd during her performance of it.
A singular delight was when Carlin perched on a stool and opened a black notebook and read a few of her poems in lieu of patter. Here, her confidence was in full bloom and she brought clarity and beauty to her line readings.
Individually, Carlin's song choices were rare and wonderful, showing off her good taste and smarts. Still, the average audience occasionally needs a breather from all the wordiness and wants to hear at least a couple of songs it can sing along with, mentally if not in actuality. Also, she sang almost all of the ballads—and there were a lot of them—while perched on a stool, giving the evening an introspective feel. It would take an extraordinary artist with exceptional interpretive abilities to pull off a program of fifteen such introspective, lyric-heavy songs; however, from song to song there was a sameness to Carlin's delivery. Admittedly a shy person by nature, she needs to be challenged to get out of her comfort zone a little more.
As the title of her show suggests, there wasn't a theme but a lot of moments that together gave us a glimpse of Ruth Carlin the artist. She has a lot going for her: a sincerity that can't be manufactured, a clear commitment to her material, an ingratiating presence, intelligence, and a fascinating voice. Trying hard, however, doesn't always get you over the finish line. If she adds a little relaxation and breeziness to her act, along with some attention to interpretive dynamics, she'll no doubt coast over it next time.
Musical director for "SongMoments" was Paul Greenwood and the show was directed by Scott Barnes. On a side note, although she introduced her brand new CD, "Moon Song," at the show, she performed only three songs from it. (She will do a CD release show in the fall.) The recording studio is the shy singer's best medium and, as I suspected, the CD is a lovely, magical showcase for Ruth Carlin's talent.