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Karen Akers Warms the Oak Room

...and the Siegels heartily applaud KAREN AKERS at the Oak Room. logo
Recently, Karen Akers' has appeared cool and aloof in her cabaret performances. She has seemed to rely on style and attitude rather than deeply felt emotions. But some time ago, at a late show at the Café Carlyle on a cold and stormy Tuesday night, Akers performed to an audience of about six people--including us. Engaging and fully in touch with her music, she was terrific. Finally, all these years later, before a packed house on her opening night at the Oak Room, she was terrific again.

In a brand new show called Haunted Heart (running through April 21), Akers begins with the Brel/Jouannest song "I'm Not Afraid," and she isn't. Not for a second. With eyes flashing from above her Mt. Everest cheekbones, she tells us in no uncertain musical terms, that she has, indeed, come to the cabaret. But unlike many cabaret singers who root their acts in show tunes or in The Great American Songbook, Akers creates a show that is more continental outlook--particularly, Parisian. For instance, she combines the complex, deeply felt French song "J'ai Deux Amours" with the simple American traditional "Shenandoah." The result is emotional combustion. The songs work together because she binds the sensibilities of these two very different cultures.

Akers' sure way with a lyric is magnified throughout her act. She chooses her material with great care and places each song in just the right order to give it maximum exposure. Consider the sudden surprise of "Sympathique," a comic number about the joys of smoking, (Is that French, or what?) The dry wit of the tune is even funnier coming from the lips of the regal Akers. There follows yet another obscure French song, "Les Couleurs du Temps" by Guy Beart, but with new English lyrics by Francesca Blumenthal. The lush and elegant melody of the song crystallizes into something heartbreakingly beautiful when you hear Akers sing the Blumenthal lyric, "I'd like to turn all my tears to confetti."

Yet another surprise comes when, without any announcement, the young Australian singer Kane Alexander emerges from the audience and starts to sing with Akers. Their voices blending like two sweet liqueurs as they perform "There's Always One You Can't Forget" by Alan Jay Lerner and Charles Strouse (from Dance a Little Closer). Akers generously lets the up-and-coming Alexander shine in her show, and the glow reflects admirably upon her.

There are only minor missteps in Akers' act, one of which she turns into a triumph. As someone who does not currently reside in New York (having moved from Paris, she now lives in London), Akers would have no way of knowing that Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon" has become something of a cabaret cliché in the last couple of years. Everybody, it seems, is singing it. But no song is sung too often if it is performed to perfection, as in Akers' rendition. As for her second mistake, when Akers offers "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" (borrowed from Edith Piaf) as her closing number, she gives this famous song an interpretation that mutes its reverberating defiance. It doesn't work. On the other hand, her encore--"Chanson," by Stephen Schwartz (from The Baker's Wife)--provides just the right finishing touch to this exquisite act.

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