Karen Akers Ensures Cabaret's Survival In a Lovelorn World

From torch songs to husky Piaf anthems, the singer teases out romantic yearnings from her audiences

CABARET star Karen Akers transforms ballads into moments of theater. ``I want to move people,'' she says during a break in a recent three-night engagement at the Regattabar in Cambridge, Mass.

Endowed with a rich contralto, she has storytelling resources that include almond eyes and a sculpted face. She embodies the elegance and glamour of a George Gershwin rhapsody. But she is no mannequin caught in a time warp. From the chevron wing of her auburn pageboy to the slinky outfits that flow with her movements, Ms. Akers frees herself to go with the moods of her songs.

Akers has taken her talents from basement-size Manhattan clubs to grander venues that included a sell-out Carnegie Hall debut, long engagements at the Ballroom and Rainbow & Stars, public-television specials, a Tony-nominated part in ``Nine,'' a role in ``Grand Hotel,'' and movie parts in ``Heartburn'' and ``The Purple Rose of Cairo.''

The singer retains her zeal for live club acts. She designs her shows as musical journeys that explore love lost, found, and remembered.

``I have faith in words,'' Akers says. She composes her between-song narrative with the same care she gives to choosing songs and crafting interpretation. Recently re-married and the mother of two sons now in college, Akers invokes her family, friends, and mentors as she introduces songs, building a personal bond with the audience.

``I'm on a date with everyone in the room,'' she says. ``With some, it's a first date. I don't get into commitment right away. I don't ask too much at first. I reassure them. I convey that I'm going to be fun to spend time with. As trust builds, I take bigger risks.''

She heeds advice from the late Lewis Friedman, whose now-defunct Reno Sweeney's was her early proving ground. ``Lewis told me, `Start with a song that either tells the audience something about themselves or about you.' ''

Onstage, she strides into the spotlight, sleek and exultant in an orange-red dolman-sleeved sweater and skirt. ``Fun is good,'' she tells the audience.

Akers uses her six-foot stature to show how a difference that might be a drawback can become a triumphant advantage. Tapping the low ceiling, she jokes about being more ``vertically endowed'' than most men. Then she drapes herself across the piano and vamps her way through Irving Berlin's ``Daddy Long Legs.''

The audience roars as she sings ``Torch Song,'' by Stephen Flaherty, the lament of a ``tall green lady'' (the Statue of Liberty) who wants a man ``who wouldn't take me for granite.''

In another number, Akers coils around her bassist John Loehrke as he accompanies her hot version of ``Back on Base'' by Richard Matlby Jr. and David Shire. Undisturbed, he appears lost in his music while her fingers trace his sleeve and then entangle his hair.

Besides Mr. Loehrke, her longtime collaborators include pianist Michael Abene, who is also her musical director and arranger, and Andy Drellis on horns and reeds. The trio play an unadorned rendering of ``Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,'' allowing full force to Akers's surging conviction as she sings the Edith Piaf anthem. Each show includes ``If I Sing,'' a song of thanksgiving to her mother, who played the piano and raised her to the sound of Piaf and Yves Montand recordings. Akers reinvents the songs, which Maltby and Shire wrote as a son's tribute to his father.

``After a gig, I'm starving for inspiration,'' Akers says. ``I go to theater and movies. Right now, I'm reading a wonderful book, Bruce Bawer's `A Place at the Table, The Gay Individual in America.' ''

Offstage, Akers isn't easily drawn into discussions about her personal life. Everything turns back to music. She draws her eclectic and carefully edited repertoire from the European cabaret tradition, Broadway and Off Broadway shows, and contemporary writers.

``I seek songs that reflect our times and how we live, but in a positive way,'' Akers says. A favorite source is Craig Carnelia. She and the New York-based composer began their friendship a decade ago, when Lewis Friedman persuaded her to perform in the debut of Carnelia's ``I Met a Man.'' She mined its lyrical gold. ``Craig loved it,'' she recalls.

``I sang Craig's `Flight' the night my father died,'' she says. ``The song brings us face to face with our mortality, but it is joyful.'' ``Flight'' is the opening song of her new CD, ``Two for the Road,'' released last month on the DRG label.

When Karen Akers performs ``Flight,'' she seems airborne. Her deep voice soars, and she spreads her arms like wings. Such scenes linger with her listeners. She leaves them eager for their next date with her.

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