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Being Karen Carpenter: Olson channels iconic singer for tribute show

The Repository - Ticket Magazine, Canton, Ohio, by B.J. Lisko, August 9, 2017

Technically, Sally Olson was a child of the ’80s and ’90s. Spiritually, though, she found herself gravitating toward the music of the ’60s and ’70s. Olson’s mother exposed her to the likes of James Taylor, Carole King, The Mamas and the Papas and The Carpenters. Later on, as a student of vocal teacher and musician Bill Reed, Olson found her connection to the latter of those groups — specifically their singer Karen Carpenter — was far greater than she ever knew.

Sally Olson’s Carpenters Tribute Concert is set for Aug. 18 at the Meyers Lake Dinner Theatre. The Vermont native has toured the show nationally, earning rave reviews for its authenticity and meticulous attention to detail. Olson is backed by a full band, and the show features video segments and multiple costume changes.

“In all the research I did, I realized what a huge connection I had not only to The Carpenters but to Karen as a person,” Olson said of originally putting the show together after Reed’s suggestion in 2013. “I can relate to her story and her struggles. That’s a big component of the show.”

Olson is the managing director at Bill Reed Voice Studio, but as her tribute act gains acclaim, she is inching toward a full-time career honoring The Carpenters.

Olson recently discussed the origins of her show and her connection to all things Karen Carpenter ahead of her Canton appearance.

Q. How did this show come together?

A. “I had been taking voice lessons with Bill Reed for a few years, and in 2013, he suggested I put together a one-woman show. I had been auditioning for a lot of things around the Burlington, Vt.,area. I would get some things, but a lot of the time I wouldn’t, and, by and large, I really wasn’t inspired by the projects or opportunities that were going on. Bill always encouraged his students to create their own opportunities. At some point, we started reading through The Carpenters’ music, and it was clear that it was a great fit for me.”

Q. How has the show evolved since you started?

A. “Two years ago, I connected with Randy Schmidt. He wrote ‘Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter.’ It’s the most recent and honest bio on her. Having read his book and having that dialogue with him, it gave me even more insight into her personal story. Being able to access her own experiences has informed the emotional and acting side of my show as well.”

Q. How do you personally relate to Karen?

A. “Karen died at the age of 32 from heart failure due to compilcations related to anorexia nervosa. I developed anorexia starting in 1998 as a senior in high school and continued to struggle with the disorder throughout my twenties. Having that common ground with Karen made me feel all the more connected to her and the music. It’s kind of eerie actually. I can really get into her mindset more than the average person, knowing what she went through physically, mentally and emotionally. Karen was also a drummer first, and because I’m so keen on being authentic, it only made sense I would learn to play the drums. I can also totally relate to Karen’s dry sense of humor. Studying her so much, I’ve also inadvertently acquired some of her speech patterns. When it comes to sounding like Karen, it has actually served me quite well.”

Q. What is your favorite part of the show?

A. “There’s more than one, actually. I’ve spent a ton of time with the costuming. I always loved vintage clothes shopping in high school, but that hobby has really been a positive influence on my show, because now I have an excuse to do it! (Laughs) When I started, the costumes were of the era and looked like something she might have worn. In the last few years, I’ve done a lot of work in re-creating exactly the iconic costumes she wore. That’s really satisfying for me, and people who are really diehard Carpenters fans, they recognize those costumes.

“The other part is being able to get up on stage and be in that moment — letting the songs tell the story. Because I am in a way becoming Karen Carpenter and telling her story through the words in the song. After a show I’ll talk to the audience, and they’ll say how I was able to bring them back to the ’70s or to a Carpenters concert they had seen. A lot of those people also met The Carpenters, and it’s been fun hearing those stories, because I was obviously too young to have met them.”

Q. Do you have a favorite Carpenters song? Or perhaps one that hits home for you a little more than others?

A. “It’s ‘I Need To Be In Love.’ It strikes a really personal chord. It’s that universal struggle that so many people go through in finding that right person and feeling like you’ll never find that right person. Also, I know how personally Karen connected to that song. It was a fact that she felt that it was written for her personally, because she was on tour all the time, it was very difficult for her or her brother to have lasting personal relationships. It’s an interesting song for me to sing, and one where I’m able to get into character as her the most.”


WHO: Sally Olson Carpenters Tribute Concert

WHEN: Aug. 18, 6:30 p.m.

WHERE: Meyers Lake Dinner Theatre, 3218 Parkway Drive NW, Canton

TICKETS: $34 includes dinner and the show. Reservations required. Call 330-327-2087.


Reach B.J. at 330-580-8314 or

On Twitter: @BLiskoREP

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