The new cabaret season is in full swing. A streamlined Jack Jones, still recovering from back surgery and singing the unfailing get-well lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, accompanied in a rare appearance by the fantastic pianist Mike Renzi, kicked things off at the Algonquin, and it’s good to know he’s lost none of his swing. He’s been replaced by Karen Akers, a polished sophisticate who has every right to be disenchanted with the dreck that passes itself off as music today, but who instead grows more enthusiastic and optimistic about the enduring classics in the Great American Songbook with each new show.
Gracing the paneled portals of the august Oak Room through Oct. 24, she’s chosen for the subject of this year’s master class the inimitable, indomitable Cole Porter. Since she’s always been a class act with first-rate tastes in music, it’s surprising that she has never tackled the poet laureate from Indiana and Yale before. It’s been worth the wait. The act—which she labels “Akers Sings Porter: Anything Goes!”—presents one challenge that is obvious: How do you cut more than 1,000 songs down to a one-hour cabaret act and satisfy everyone at the same time? Best to plunge ahead and not worry. The dulcimer tones of her rich, crystal-clear contralto wrap themselves around even the most difficult Porter lyrics to deliver an eclectic set of 16 songs that are thrilling to hear. Backed by an ace duo of Don Rebic on piano and Dick Sarpola on bass, she leaves no mood unexplored, although the emphasis is largely on the comedic patter of Porter “list” songs even seasoned performers twice Ms. Akers’ age are reluctant to try.
Fearless and always ready to explore new musical horizons, she plunges head-on into the seldom performed “Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking,” which even Barbra Streisand refuses to sing without a teleprompter. (“Sunflower cakes, moonbeam cakes, gizzard cakes, lizard cakes, pickled eels, pickled snakes/ Bird’s nest soup, seaweed soup, noodle soup, poodle soup, talking crows with the croup, almost anything … come to the supermarket … if you come on a camel you can park it … in old Peking.”) Or how about the tongue-twisting “The Physician,” a song from the 1933 Nymph Errant (now there’s a show that deserves a revival at Encores!) in which a frustrated lady patient catalogs the anatomical parts her dreamy doctor admired, then adds “but he never said he loved me!” Ms. Akers enunciates epiglottis and appendix vermiformis, and rhymes larynx with pharynx as flawlessly as Gertrude Lawrence, who introduced the song, and when she trills, “I know he thought a lotta … my medulla oblongata,” she levels the audience to hysterics. One of the funniest bits in the act is a section devoted not only to the familiar patter lyrics of the legendary “Let’s Do It” (“Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it,” etc.) but also a sampling of the additions of both Irving Berlin and Noel Coward, who were so besotted with the song they could not resist writing extra choruses. I don’t know which one wrote “My kith and kin do it, Every uncle and aunt/ But I confess to it, I’ve one cousin who can’t,” but it sounds like Noel. Delectable fun, to be sure.
With her long limbs, aristocratic posture, Clara Bow bangs (O.K., Anna Wintour on a good day?) and doughnut-hole waist, she’s the perfect diseuse to relay the hidden messages and double-entendres in Cole Porter’s elegant lyrics. The familiar love songs are given short shrift, which might be a caveat to some, but which I found a welcome change. I don’t care if I ever hear “Night and Day” and “Just One of Those Things” again, and if I do, I’ll pull out Bobby Short’s recordings. But one of the most pleasurable things about Ms. Akers is her revisionist take on even the most hackneyed tunes. Yes, she does sing the tiresome “Anything Goes,” but with an emphasis on changing times that exposes the same old lyrics in a witty new way. “I Get a Kick Out of You” slows down to a much slower pace than usual. “It’s All Right With Me” floats in a minor key. “Don’t Fence Me In” is a far cry from the clip-clop introduced by Roy Rogers and Trigger in 1944, not picking up a strut until the second chorus. Devoting one lovely section to his devotion to Paris, she evokes the many moods the city inspired in Porter and the songs he wrote about it, singing in both French and English “I Love Paris,” “Allez-vous en” and a rousing, hilarious “Can-Can.”
Her wise, world-weary yet dreamy rendition of “You Don’t Know Paree” is the best example of Porter’s philosophy about the City of Light I have heard from any singer in a long time. When her perfect enunciation, illustrated with a smile that hides a darker emotion, knowingly pronounces the words “Paree will still be laughing after every one of us disappears … But never once forget her laughter that hides the tears/ And until you’ve lived a lot … and loved a lot … and lost a lot … You may know Paris, but you don’t know Paree”—well, she makes you really feel she’s been there, walking the same streets as Cole Porter. There is a great deal more, but you get the picture. Karen Akers singing Cole Porter is an extremely elegant evening that sends you soaring on a very high plane indeed.