When Karen Akers comes drifting down the stairs in a white chiffon gown, snuggles up against the grand piano, and sings, you really don't know what to expect. What you get is a honey-and-green-velvet voice caressing songs all the way from Cole Porter to Billy Joel. The voice itself, somewhere between Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich, has made her a cabaret star with a rising career in films. At this Washington nightspot called Blues Alley, Mrs. Akers's fans won't let her leave the stage and go back up the stairs to silence. They sit in the timbered darkness with only the candles on the tables and the big spots shining on her uplifted face as she belts out or croons or whispers their favorites: her trademark song, ``Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,'' an hommage to Piaf in a low, catch-in-the throat style; Lerner and Loewe's ``I Loved You Once in Silence'' from ``Camelot''; the Dietrich torch song, ``Falling in Love Again,'' growled softly in German; Ira Gershwin's ``How Long Has This Been Going On?''; Billy Joel's ``She's Always a Woman''; and Cole Porter's ``The Laziest Gal in Town.''
They bring her back for four encores and whistle the house down. ``The truth is, I'm a sucker for whistlers,'' Akers laughs before launching into another song. ``It feels as though I should welcome you to my living room - there's nothing like singing at home,'' she purrs to the audience at one point. She makes herself at home, taking off the tiered white chiffon jacket of her gown and getting down to business: singing. A large, ruby-red pendant gleams at her throat. For ``Laziest Gal'' she curls up on top of the grand piano to sing, an unexpectedly kittenish act for a statuesque former model. But it works.
Some of those songs and other favorites, like Craig Carnelian's divorce song ``You Can Have the TV'' and Ira Gershwin's ``How Long Has This Been Going On?'' are on Akers's second record for Rizzoli. It will be released this fall, before the Christmas premi`ere of her third film, ``Vibes,'' in which she appears with Jeff Goldblum and Cindy Lauper.
This spring, when she opened at the Ballroom in Manhattan, New York Times critic Stephen Holden called Akers ``the quintessential cabaret `art' singer'' ... with a deep, smoky alto....'' Los Angeles Times critic Joe Morgenstern described it as ``a great voice, an instrument with the power of Streisand's, the dark passion of Piaf's and the lean irony of Dietrich's....'' It's surprising, then, with an Akers cult following that made her Carnegie Hall concert a sellout, that she keeps being rediscovered.
When she's actually welcoming you to her living room, as she did after the Blues Alley gig, she's even more of a surprise. Whether she's boarding a plane or making an entrance at a party, Akers turns heads. She is tall, slender, stunning, and invariably as smartly dressed as one of those fillies in an Anne Klein II commercial. People remember the face: triangular as a Siamese cat's under thick, auburn bangs;a set of the highest cheekbones west of the Pecos; and a long mouth.
In person, on the doorstep of her Tudor-style home in northwest Washington, she stands six feet tall in her bare, ruby-toenailed feet. Even when she pads out to the kitchen to get some Perrier and lime, she looks like a model moving down the runway in her white-and-pink-striped knit dress.
You've seen her in the movies: She played the '30s nightclub singer in Woody Allen's ``Purple Rose of Cairo,'' and the other woman in Mike Nichols's ``Heartburn.'' Now she's Jeff Goldblum's sweetie in ``Vibes,'' directed by Ken Kwapis. So far, no starring roles. ``I haven't done something meaty enough in a movie. I want something I can really sink my teeth into. I've had it with these cute cameos,'' she says.
``I mean, I don't mean to sound ungrateful. I've loved doing the work. But I'd like to have something considerably more demanding. I'd like to really immerse myself, [do] something more challenging,'' says the Karen Akers who is no slouch at acting. She won a Tony Award nomination for her role as the betrayed wife in the Broadway musical ``Nine.''
From Mike Nichols she learned ``a lot more about not taking yourself seriously.'' When the film was edited, much of her performance ended up on the cutting room floor.'' If you sneeze, you miss me,'' she says with a smile. She praises Nichols as a director for his ``very poignant whimsy,'' explaining, ``He has a way of getting you into a position very gently, with a lot of humor, and then sort of turning the knife in your heart.''
The most important thing she learned as an actress from director Woody Allen was flexibility. But also, she says, to ``be prepared, the old Girl Scout mentality. He's very focused, also, on what is going on. He is the most serious of the directors I've worked with.''
At times she scrunches up her legs under her on the pale green, checked chair she's sitting on like a little girl. There is an unexpected gamin quality about this sophisticated woman with a voice like a smoldering viola. She reminds you that her life is not all sequined applause, that she is a homemaker, too, as the wife of James Akers (a Washington lawyer, partner at Sullivan & Cromwell) and the mother of their two sons, Jeremy and Christopher. Their home is the perfect backdrop for her, as though a set designer had chosen it as a prop.
Are there any problems in a marriage with two such disparate careers as show biz and the law? ``Of course there are problems, but they're not caused by two different disciplines. Her husband started taking dance classes when he was 30 and has performed in the Washington Ballet's productions of ``The Nutcracker Suite'' at Christmastime. ``I think that his foray into the world of arts is probably very helpful to his understanding of my world.''
Akers herself grew up as the oldest of six children in an exotic family in New York. Their father, HeinrickOrth-Pallavicini, is an Austrian count who became an insurance underwriter and sometime sculptor. Their mother has earned a divinity degree and is now chaplain at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. Theirs was a multilingual family, where both French and Italian were spoken as well as English.
When it came time for college, Karen choose Hunter, where she majored in English, with a minor in philosophy and music. In her singing, she treats each word as a lapidary thing, polished and burnished. She admits to ``a faith in words, and it's funny because I'm not terribly articulate all the time.'' She adds, ``There is also the love of languages,'' and she has steeped herself in the songs of Piaf, Charles Aznavour, and Yves Montand. ``I sang in German, too, when I was in Germany.'' That was when her career first started to take off; after years in the '70s in New York, singing at cabarets like Reno Sweeney's, she was discovered by German-born Christian Blackwood. He shot a TV documentary on her in Germany that was later shown on the Public Broadcasting Service. The sound track inspired her first Rizzoli album, ``Presenting Karen Akers.'' A second PBS documentary, ``Karen Akers at Wolf Trap,'' aired last summer.
Because of an editing error, our Nov. 24 story on cabaret singer and actress Karen Akers appeared without some relevant information: Akers is appearing at the Ballroom in Manhattan through tomorrow; ``Vibes,'' the Columbia Pictures film in which she appears with Jeff Goldblum, will be released next spring; her second album on the Rizzoli Records label will be released next month; and she will appear on NBC's ``Cheers'' Dec. 10.