By Patrick O’Brien
“What you see is what you get” is a mixed proposition. For my last write-up here, the implication was dispiriting. A week later, at the Venus Cabaret, things start to look up just in time for Christmas. Merry Christmas, Darling: Heidi Kettenring Sings Karen Carpenter is what you see on the poster, and it just so happens you get a little bit more once you come inside.
Granted, Heidi Kettenring – Jeff winner, Chicago favorite, bon vivant – doesn’t limit herself to the Carpenters’ Christmas catalogue. She doesn’t try to become or otherwise emulate Karen Carpenter. (Not that anyone ever can, and, as Kettenring cracks, “She sang low,” a hair lower than her own range.) She doesn’t whip up any holly-and-ivy-laced biography. (“And then Richard handed in ‘Merry Christmas, Darling,’” she doesn’t say.) She doesn’t draw any deep parallels between Karen’s life and her own. Kettenring and her M.D./arranger Chuck Larkin just really, really like the Carpenters and want to share their music with the accustomed and the uninitiated alike.
So, what do you get?
Homemade Oreo balls made from the secret Kettenring recipe, for one, though that may depend on what day you go. They take time to bake, after all.
Surprisingly richer than the Oreo balls: a masterful demonstration on what increasingly feels like a fading art – how to arrange and put across a simple tune. In a post-American Idol world, bells, whistles and vocal pyrotechnics may get a hoot and holler, but all the high J’s and free-wheeling riffs can get wearisome, especially if they’re trying to galvanize what is ultimately a weak song stack. Karen and brother Richard seemed to know this deep down in their bones – he was a superb arranger, and she instinctively knew when to give the song some juice, or, even better, when to let it be the sweet little thing it was.
Like Karen, Kettenring, ably backed up by Lara Filip and Alex Newkirk, cozies on up to the microphone and brings the tune to you, every sha-la-la-la and wo-o-wo-o. For his part, Larkin’s arrangements for piano and bass reveal that the songs can stand on their own without a philharmonic orchestra.
Seriously, how could one even fathom overselling “Little Altar Boy?”
Based on all the heads I saw gently swaying in time, or resting contentedly in their hands, Kettenring’s Carpenters act hits the spot like a toasty coffee and Bailey’s before the holiday proper. That’s worth seeing and hearing, be it again or for the first time.
The Venus Cabaret presents “Merry Christmas, Darling: Heidi Kettenring Sings Karen Carpenter” at 3745 North Southport Avenue, Chicago, through December 29. More information and tickets are here.