Karen Akers
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Karen Akers
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
There's always a certain irony when a cabaret performer -- especially a brilliant interpreter like Karen Akers -- devotes an evening to a composer. Take her new show, Simply Styne, which fills the Algonquin Oak Room until May 12. While you may leave humming the wonderful variety of melodies Jule Styne created over his many-decades-long career, what lingers is the contributions of his many collaborators, including Bob Merrill, Stephen Sondheim, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and Sammy Cahn.

Akers sports not only a new, younger-looking hairstyle for this engagement, which has been directed by Eric Michael Gillett, but she exhibits a new sense of warmth and geniality. Never have I seen Akers so happily interact with the audience (although, thankfully, there's no sing-along) or seem so completely at ease moving about the room.

She even gently pokes fun of herself by singing a snippet of French during a cleverly conceived medley of "Let Me Entertain You" and "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" (from Gypsy) in which those songs now truly speak to the determination of the artist to succeed.

Faced with one of the most familiar catalogues in American popular music, Akers and her musical director Don Rebic work hard to give some of Styne's standards a new spin. Most notable is a quartet of World War II-era songs, including "I've Heard That Song Before" and "I'll Walk Alone" that are not only stripped of their sentimentality, but are given acerbic counterpoint by Rebic, who spews lie-after-excuse-after-lie of a cheating husband. He takes the joke too far -- it hardly needed to be inserted into all four songs -- but the idea is a good one.

Smartly, the pair also forego some of Styne's best known musical theater songs in favor of other fare, ranging from the blissfully silly "Ten Thousand Four Hundred and Thirty Two Sheep" (recently recorded by Audra McDonald) and the exuberant "Fireworks" (lyrics by Comden & Green) to such piercing ballads as "I Fall In Love Too Easily" and "Killing Time" (lyrics by Cahn and Carolyn Leigh, respectively) to a trio of songs by lyricist Bob Merrill, including the underappreciated "Winter Was Warm."

Naturally, that pair's classic musical, Funny Girl, isn't overlooked, thanks to a gorgeous "The Music That Makes Me Dance" (broken up into two parts, one at the show's beginning and the other towards the end), a playful "You Are Woman, I Am Man" with Rebic, and a heartfelt rendition of "People" as her encore.

As always, I wish Akers' show weren't so devoid of patter; especially in a show dedicated to a single writer, some historical tidbits, stories of inspirations, or even mere acknowledgments of which song came from which show would add to rather than detract from the experience. Still, in the end, Simply Styne is a simply delightful way to spend an evening.