We'll tell you all about it in a moment, but first it's worth considering the magnitude of what Akers has done. The Oak Room has traditionally been the worst major New York cabaret space in which to perform: the room's long rectangular shape, with piano and stage in the center, forces performers to face a mere handful of tables while the rest of the audience is spread out behind them or to the far left and right. In other words, there are precious few good seats here. The space is so poorly configured that we once had no choice but to review the back of Lainie Kazan's head. Only Andrea Marcovicci, in her own idiosyncratic way, manages to entertain an entire crowd at the Oak Room crowd. What she does, no one else can master; but what Karen Akers does, everyone can and should master.
In her new show, When Love Speaks to You, Akers has taken the imaginative leap of treating the Oak Room as a theater-in-the-round. Instead of merely turning left and right, she periodically turns completely around to transform the back of the room to the front of the room, and she also plays directly to each side. This sounds so simple that readers might well wonder what exactly is such a big deal: If much of the audience is behind you, of course you should turn around, plant your feet, and sing to them at regular intervals. Except that no one has ever done it before--until Karen Akers, God bless her.
And why shouldn't everyone have the same chance at seeing the exquisite Ms. Akers? Still strikingly elegant and beautiful, the woman also continues to be a towering talent. While her regal bearing (she is, in fact, descended from royalty) has left her with a reputation for being somewhat aloof and/or cool, in fact she is a surprisingly warm entertainer who displays a considerable range of emotion. Akers runs the gamut from high drama to low (yet witty) comedy in her new show, but the main thrust of the program is romantic.
Looking at love through the prism of music, Akers gives us her emotions as reflected and refracted through the work of such songwriters as Jacques Brel, Stephen Sondheim, and Rodgers & Hart. To her credit, she also brings us the work of new songwriters...and she doesn't just slip them in into her show. The title tune of her act is the work of K. King-Wouk, a stunning song that is one of several high points in this thrilling act.
Even when sampling the songbooks of famous composers and lyricists, Akers often digs up some of their lesser-known (but wonderful) pieces. When's the last time you heard Stephen Sondheim's "Ah, But Underneath" in a cabaret show? Akers certainly gets underneath the lyric and brings it to life. She also fully captures the ribald rhythms of Rodgers & Hart's "Queen Elizabeth" (from The Garrick Gaieties of 1926). Working with musical director and pianist Don Rebic, her valued longtime collaborator, she demonsrates style galore in most every number. Suffering from a bad throat, Akers wasn't in her best voice on opening night; but it hardly mattered because she is, first and foremost, an interpreter of lyrics.
Akers is known as a champion of the work of Jacques Brel, and she doesn't disappoint on this occasion: Her rendition of Brel's "Marieke" stops the show. But there are plenty of other magical moments, including her touching tribute to Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones's The Fantasticks with two songs from that score, including an unforgettable rendition of "Try to Remember". Karen Akers is unforgettable in her own right.
[Ed. Note: As of this week, the Siegels will be providing increased coverage of the NYC cabaret scene for TheaterMania, as this column will now appear every Tuesday and Friday. You can also find additional cabaret reviews by the Siegels at Stu Hamstra's www.cabarethotlineonline.com]