Karen Akers
Karen Akers
If you take in a cabaret show at any of the ritzier rooms in Manhattan -- the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel, the Café Carlyle, or Feinstein's at the Regency -- you'll be spending so much money that you'll think your dollars have turned to lira. Of course, it's worth it when you're seeing and hearing a performer you truly love; but, at these prices, most people won't take a chance on an artist with whom they are unfamiliar unless the talent in question has a very strong stamp of approval. Well, here comes the stamp: Karen Akers, at the Oak Room through May 24, is giving a cabaret performance that is as close to perfection as any we've ever seen. If you're going to spend your hard-earned money on one big-ticket show this season, this is the one we'd recommend.

While it sometimes happens that a show in these expensive rooms is a bore, the dog acts are few and far between. So, too, are the truly great ones. In a show entitled Theatre Songs, Akers reminds us during this otherwise rather dismal musical theater season of just how powerful a show tune can be when performed with craft, interpretive acumen, and style.

This irrefutable point is made throughout her program, but nowhere is it more strikingly obvious than when she sings three songs in a row from Maury Yeston's Nine. Of course, Akers starred in the original production of the show that has just recently been revived on Broadway. When you hear her deliver these songs, two of which she sang in the 1982 production, you'll lament that she wasn't brought back for the revival. First, she sings "My Husband Makes Movies" with a keen understanding of character. She expresses emotions in vocal Technicolor, telling us that she is proud of her husband yet fundamentally isolated from him and his work; nonetheless, she will ultimately (if reluctantly) compromise her needs because she believes in his art. Akers then turns to Nine's best song, "Unusual Way," performing it with a deep-seated passion that is sadly lacking in the revival. She finishes the set with "Be On Your Own," the defiant song that the wife sings to her philandering husband when she finally leaves him. Before Akers begins it, she tells a wonderful anecdote about Tommy Tune's direction when she first sang the song 21 years ago. It sets up her rendition brilliantly, and her fierce performance is nothing short of stunning.

A gifted actress with a voice almost as beautiful as she is herself, Akers unfailingly finds her way into each lyric and makes you feel it. And her range is remarkable. From the unyielding intensity of "My Childhood" (Jacques Brel) to the sly comedy of "I Never Do Anything Twice" (Sondheim), she finds just the right tone and sells every number. And Akers is right up to date, deftly performing an underrated song called "Smart Women" (Hamlisch/Carnelia) from this season's Imaginary Friends.

Speaking of smart women: Akers once again conquers the age-old problem of playing the Oak Room by treating her show as "Cabaret-in-the-Round." She did the same thing last year, and it's simply inspired. No matter where you sit in this long, narrow room, you will often find her singing right to you. We only wish that other performers would latch onto this concept. Kudos to director Richard Niles and to Don Rebic, whose musical direction and subtle yet demanding arrangements are the lynchpin of Akers's art.

Famous for singing in French, Akers doesn't head east of Times Square let alone all the way to France in this show until she gets to her encore and, even then, it's only a soupçon: As part of a medley, she sings just a little bit of West Side Story in French. This elegantly brings home the fact that musical theater songs have worlwide appeal -- especially when Karen Akers sings them.