On the face of it, Frank Loesser, one of Broadway´s all-time great wielders of urban slang, and Karen Oberlin, a demure pop-jazz singer who radiates a subdued glamour, are not a natural fit. Had he lived in a later time, Loesser, who died in 1969, might have turned a Martin Scorsese movie like "Raging Bull" into a hard-boiled pop opera. Nothing about Ms. Oberlin, whose tribute to Loesser, "Heart and Soul: A Centenary Celebration of Frank Loesser," is playing at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, could be described as hard-boiled. She is no smoldering Vikki LaMotta. Nor could I imagine her in "Guys and Dolls," playing Miss Adelaide, whose comic signature song, "Adelaide´s Lament," is conspicuously missing from this show. (Sarah Brown, yes.)
But there are other aspects to Loesser besides the wisecracking pre-Beat poet of "Guys and Dolls." And in "Heart and Soul" Ms. Oberlin concentrates on Loesser´s softer-edged zaniness and on his unjustly neglected romantic side. Several of Loesser´s great ballads – notably, "I´ve Never Been in Love Before," "I Wish I Didn´t Love You So" and "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year" – were given careful, contemplative readings in Wednesday´s show.
Beyond having a pretty voice, poise and interpretive insight, Ms. Oberlin is a thorough researcher who placed many of the songs in a historical or personal context. The frisky "Bloop, Bleep!" and the galloping boogie-woogie "Rumble, Rumble, Rumble," she explained, described Loesser´s nocturnal frustration at the sounds of dripping faucets and an upstairs piano player.
Her interpretation of "Love Isnt Born (Its Made)," a song with music by Arthur Schwartz that Ann Sheridan introduced in the 1943 movie "Thank Your Lucky Stars," emphasized its message as a hard-headed advice song to women to be more sexually aggressive. "Here is a fact to face:/A man wont take a taxi just to get no place," it declares.
Ms. Oberlin brought enough sass to "Hamlet," Loesser´s riotously funny translation of Shakespeare into gangsterese ("He bumped off his uncle/and he Mickey Finned his mother") to make the song register.
Throughout the smart, polished show, she maintained a comfortable rapport with her musicians, the fleet, airy jazz pianist Jon Weber, who took a couple of impressive solos, and the bassist Sean Smith.
Karen Oberlin continues through June 19 at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th Street, Manhattan; (212) 419-9331.