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She Can Cook, Too

Reports on Barbara Cook at the Carlyle, Karen Akers at the Algonquin, Outward Bound at Urban Stages, and a new version of Caligula with André De Shields.

By New York City
Barbara Cook(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Barbara Cook
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Like a beacon on a stormy night, Barbara Cook is keeping the Great American Songbook from crashing on the shoals of despair. Returning to the Café Carlyle, where she held court for some years, she offers a program titled Tribute. The show honors several people, including her late, great accompanist Wally Harper, cabaret icon Bobby Short (also recently deceased), composer Harold Arlen, and the songwriting team of Arthur Schwartz & Dorothy Fields.

There is nothing maudlin in this show; in fact, quite the contrary. Cook's patter is charming and engagingly anecdotal, while her musical selections tend toward the upbeat and uptempo. She's not letting any dust settle, as evidenced by her singing of "I'm Like a New Broom" (Schwartz & Fields). But when she wants to break your heart, she knows just how to do it, whether by singing "Make the Man Love Me" (also by Schwartz & Fields) or "Last Night When We Were Young" (Arlen & Harburg). Perhaps most devastating of all at the performance we attended was her off-mike encore number. It was here that she was most emotionally direct about the losses of Harper and Short: She gave us a knowing look and sang Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" ("...though your heart is aching..."). Barbara Cook continues at the Café Carlyle through May 27.

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Karen Akers(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Karen Akers
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Karen Akers on Love

How sad it would be if Barbara Cook were the only grandmaster of cabaret left on the circuit. Happily, there are several others, one of whom has just begun a seven-week run at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room. We're referring to the incomparable Karen Akers, who's performing a wonderful show devoted to love of all kinds: good, bad, and indifferent.

This is a particularly well-crafted program in which the song selections and their order create a delicate dramatic arc. Directed by Richard Niles, with unusually effective lighting by Tim Flannery, the show is terrific as Akers takes us on a journey from the beginning of an affair ("You've Got Possibilities") to grand passion ("I Got Lost in His Arms") and right through the breakup ("I Get Along Without You Very Well"). She examines a variety of attitudes, from love recalled ("They Can't Take That Away From Me") to love that's just too much trouble ("The Laziest Gal in Town").

The songs are smartly chosen, the arrangements (by Don Rebic) sensitive and soulful, yet the truly magical ingredient here is how well Akers acts each number. She gives a master class in lyric interpretation with every number; every phrase has a purpose, every gesture has a meaning, yet there is nothing but fluid grace in her performance. Simply put, she looks gorgeous, sounds great, and puts on a classic cabaret act. Karen Akers continues at the Oak Room through May 28.

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Joe Delafield, Kathleen Early, andGareth Saxe in Outward Bound(Photo © Theresa Squire)
Joe Delafield, Kathleen Early, and
Gareth Saxe in Outward Bound
(Photo © Theresa Squire)
Bound for Success

The Keen Company continues to consistently produce some of the most compelling theater in New York City. Their latest triumph is the revival of the Sutton Vane classic Outward Bound. A hit in London in 1923 and on Broadway in 1924, it was later turned into a 1930 movie that featured Leslie Howard recreating his stage success on the way to becoming a movie star.

By today's standards, the play is sentimental and emotionally over the top. But Robert Kalfin's understated direction, the low-budget brilliance of the art deco set design by Nathan Heverin, the wonderful, time-sensitive costume design by Theresa Squire, and finely calibrated period-style performances by a splendid cast allow the play to envelop us in its time and its otherworldly place. In its day, this was a sophisticated ghost story about a cross-section of English people on board a ship that's headed for heaven or hell -- or both. Very much rooted in its era, Outward Bound captured the anguish that festered beneath the high spirits of the jazz age. A desperate young couple, a high society matron, a ruthless businessman, a minister, a charwoman, and a drunken gentleman must face The Examiner before they leave the ship and meet their fate.

The play has two climaxes, and that may be one too many for some, but there is no denying the exquisite theatricality of both. If you buy into the premise, it's definitely a two-hanky show. It's also a showcase for actor Gareth Saxe, who gives a sensational performance in the role that made Leslie Howard a star.

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André De Shields and Zainab Jah in Caligula(Photo © Mike Messer)
André De Shields and Zainab Jah in Caligula
(Photo © Mike Messer)
André De Shields is Caligula!

The Classical Theatre of Harlem is presenting its own unique version of Caligula, starring André De Shields. Written by Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner, directed by Preisser, this is a genuinely original piece of work -- and we do mean "piece of work."

A wildly self-aware production, it borders on performance art, but on a grand scale. Grandest of all is De Shields, who plays the title character with unrivaled ferocity. At one point, he actually snatches a chair from underneath a patron in the first row to use as a weapon in his hand-to-hand battle with Jesus Christ. Anything goes here, and we're not talkin' Cole Porter.

Brash to a point well-beyond bold, this Caligula is as dangerous as he is charismatic and as funny as he is terrifying. De Shields gives an unforgettable performance in a show that is by turns exciting, challenging, silly, and sensuous. All sorts of things go on in this metaphysical fairytale, from murder to music. When all is said and done, it's a mighty tasty theatrical stew, more than a little gamy but never boring.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]


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