The epitome of a cabaret chanteuse, Karen Akers plays to packed houses every night in the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel. With an unbeatable combination of spectacular high cheekbones and resonant low notes, she sings of love...and the audience swoons. Though sometimes described as a cool, aloof performer, she is anything but that when singing; her patter occasionally feels too practiced, which does create a bit of distance between her and the audience, but she bridges all gaps when she expresses herself in words and music.
Always a tasteful, elegant singer, Akers inevitably chooses classy material. She has done so again for her new show, You and the Night and the Music. With a few exceptions that curiously bookend her act, the songs suit her beautifully. In the case of one of the exceptions, she seems aware of the problem: After singing "Stars Fell On Alabama" (Parish/Perkins), she mentions that she isn't particularly well known for her Alabama roots. She might have been wiser to set up the song with that admission and explain why she found the tune appealing nonetheless. If she had done so, we probably would not have spent so much time thinking how odd it was for this woman with a royal bloodline (she's a Hapsburg) to sing about Alabama. Also less than effective is her rendition of "A Sleepin' Bee" (Arlen/Capote), a song with a strong metaphorical content; Akers sings it too soon in her act, and we're not quite ready to go there. Finally, when she performs "Take Me Home" (Tom Waits) as a tag to her encore, it comes across a little too blatantly as an appeal to buy her CDs. Following a thunderous ovation at the end of her act, this tepid little tune gets very mild applause just before the lights go up. It's a shame to end the evening like that.
Those are our complaints. Be assured that the vast bulk of Akers' act is a winning program of songs that allows her to approach the subject of love with variety and dexterity. Musical director/pianist Don Rebic does splendid work in both departments; he has provided arrangements that suit Akers' voice like a bejeweled but tasteful necklace. Perhaps that's why Akers, who is not known for comedy, scores smartly with "The Shelf Life of Love (Lawrence/Saltzman), a contemporary number about lovers who go stale.
The singer also delivers what her fans have come for--that winsome combination of French and English--in "Once Upon a Summertime" (English lyrics by Johnny Mercer). And there's the special treat of a French tune, "One Hundred Thousand Songs," that Francesca Blumenthal has newly translated and radiantly transformed into "An Anthem of Joy." But the high point of the show is a two-song set that centers on the end of relationships, acted and sung with heartbreaking simplicity. These two wonderful songs, neither of which is done in cabaret very often, are "Cry Without a Reason" (Dean Pitchford/Stephen Schwartz) and "Go Leave" (Kate McGarrigle). They'll be done in cabaret a lot now!
Akers has also added what might well become a signature song for her: Charles Trenet's "I Wish You Love" (English lyrics by Albert A. Beach) would actually have served as a better title song for this show. Of course, Akers could not leave the stage without offering "Non, je ne regrette rien" (Dumont/Vaucaire), a number that belongs to her almost as much as it does to Edith Piaf. After seeing this show, you too will have no regrets.
[Karen Akers continues at the Oak Room through May 19; click here for schedule.]