Sally Olson

June 5, 2017 | By | Add a Comment

Creating a cabaret tribute show can start with a performer’s simple, perhaps youthful, admiration for the chosen subject. Internet searches may provide at least the bare bones of a biographical narrative. Memorizing the key numbers in an honoree’s song list is a must, of course. But there is so much more that’s needed beyond a fan’s notes. Sally Olson’s show at The Triad, with the somewhat overblown title of Carpenters Tribute Concert, failed to demonstrate the requisite due diligence. Olson’s narration, for example, was diffuse and repetitive, with its Wikipedia showing. (Karen Carpenter died only once of complications from anorexia nervosa, so that well-known fact didn’t need three repetitions.) What’s more, Olson read her narrative in furtive glances at a music stand. Naturally, the narration should have been memorized, but even more important, it should have been internalized. We in the audience should have understood Olson’s connection to Karen, and, ideally, our own.

Carpenter’s life and body of work are recent and enduring enough for most patrons in a current cabaret audience to know a lot about her. I had seen another Karen Carpenter tribute show at a New York club earlier this year, and the week this show was on, a local PBS station was running a lengthy documentary about the Carpenters (with Richard’s full participation), as a pledge-drive fund-raiser. This is not a distant Helen Morgan, Sophie Tucker, or Jimmy Durante we’re talking about, but an enduring musical icon. Instead of attempting to replicate Karen Carpenter’s familiar look and sound, largely unsuccessfully, Olson might better have spent her prep time weaving her songs, patter, and her also-diffuse visual aids (film clips) into a coherent, satisfying whole piece of musical biography.

Despite three long-dress costume changes and two different hairdos, Olson did not really resemble Karen Carpenter, and vocally she came close only at the beginning of her set, losing strength, particularly on the low notes, and voice credibility as the show wore on. Her song list started at the top, not always the best idea, with a medley of the expected Carpenters’ greatest hits, including “For All We Know” (Fred Carlin, James Griffin, Robb Royer), “We’ve Only Just Begun” (Paul Williams, Roger Nichols) “Top of the World” (Richard Carpenter, John Bettis), “Superstar” (Leon Russell, Bonnie Bramlett) “Rainy Days and Mondays” (Williams, Nichols), and “Close to You” (Burt Bacharach, Hal David). Olson also threw in a truncated version of “I Need to Be in Love” (R. Carpenter, Bettis, Albert Hammond). Only later in the proceedings did she correctly note that this was the best of all Carpenters songs, Karen’s favorite, and the one that always made her cry when she sang it. A fuller version of “I Need to Be in Love” coupled with the touching tale of Karen’s long, painful search for intimacy, her ill-advised and short-lived marriage, and, yes, her death from anorexia, should have been one climactic piece, not scattered throughout the hour.

A half hour into her show, Olson unaccountably called a ten-minute intermission. Her purpose was unclear, since she had successfully made a “first-act” costume change behind a screen. After this strange interval, she offered a selection of songs less directly identified with Karen Carpenter. Wrongly asserting that the three biggest musical influences in Karen’s life were the “B’s—the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Burt Bacharach,” she launched into a lengthy Bacharach/David medley—without once mentioning Hal David, who wrote every single lyric she sang. In her zeal to flesh out her set with such songs as “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “Walk On By,” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” she seemed to forget that another BB, Big Brother Richard, composer, conductor, arranger, pianist, backup singer—and the person who pulled Karen out from behind her drum kit and made her a lead singer—had more influence on her musical life than all the other B’s put together. Olson also apparently didn’t realize that because of the time given to the Bachrach/David material, “Act Two” came off as more of a tribute to Dionne Warwick.

Jeffrey Klitz was a good and game pianist, backup singer, and musical director, and mercifully made no attempt to imitate Richard Carpenter. Richard’s sound was big, with lots of overdubbing on recordings, multiple backup singers on stage, and full orchestras for both. While replicating all that on a cabaret stage would be prohibitive, the addition of at least one other instrument could have filled in some gaps in the Carpenters’ trademark sound. Olson could also have benefitted from hiring a director for her show, one who could also have served as dramaturg.

Overall, Olson made it clear that when it comes to adapting a tribute to Karen Carpenter for the cabaret stage, she’s only just begun.

Carpenters Tribute Concert
The Triad – April 29

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Robert Windeler is the author of 17 books, including biographies of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, Shirley Temple, and Burt Lancaster. As a West Coast correspondent for The New York Times and Time magazine, he covered movies, television and music, and he was an arts and entertainment critic for National Public Radio. He has contributed to a variety of other publications, including TV Guide, Architectural Digest, The Sondheim Review, and People, for which he wrote 35 cover stories. He is a graduate of Duke University in English literature and holds a masters in journalism from Columbia, where he studied critical writing with Judith Crist. He has been a theatre critic for Back Stage since 1999, writes reviews for, and is a member of The Players and the American Theatre Critics Association.

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