Learning to sing the complicated songs of Stephen Sondheim fluently, remain rue to your own style, and examine fresh interpretations at the same time is a challenge few singers have managed to master. Karen Akers is the rare exception. In her ravishing new show at the Algonquin’s fabled Oak Room (through Oct. 29) she looks at the brilliant composer’s erratic tempos and captivating lyrics through a magnifying glass, finding new meanings under, behind and on the edges of lyrics less courageous performers inevitably pass over. The result is adventurous and thrilling.
With the elegance of a Bolshoi ballerina, she also manages to evoke a friendly accessibility that is inviting. One can imagine her picking apples in an orchard, wearing a sable coat. With her dark purple baritone, the result is nothing like Barbara Cook’s trilling soprano or Elaine Stritch’s critic-proof croak as she “talks” the songs. Ms. Akers is an equally adept actress, but I get the feeling I am hearing Sondheim for the first time. You can count on her as sure as a palette of orange in autumn to illuminate the underappreciated and reveal surprises. This is not the hackneyed, overexposed Sondheim other cabaret divas give you. So anyone expecting a vocal caress by a title like “What More Do I Need” might be fooled. From the score of Saturday Night, Sondheim’s earliest show, this song is simultaneously giddy, infectious and cynical in its belief that even a dismal New York winter can seem beautiful if you’re lucky enough to be two instead of one:
A subway train thunders through the Bronx,
A taxi horn on the corner honks,
But I adore every roar.
And what more do I need?
I hear a crane making street repairs
A two-ton child running wild upstairs
Steam pipes bang, sirens clang,
With your love, what more do I need?
Divided into three sections labeled Live, Laugh and Love, she examines both sides of the coins. “Live Alone and Like It,” from the film Dick Tracy, and “Here We Go Again,” an obscure song from Do I Hear a Waltz with music by Richard Rodgers, are about single people who find happiness in the core of their own comfort zone. The selections in the “Laugh” portion are not fall down funny (Sondheim doesn’t write many of those), but she finds new things to do with the strippers’ “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” from Gypsy, and she does it without the props. She introduces American audiences to “But Underneath,” a brilliant song written especially for Diana Rigg in the London production of Follies. It is beautiful and wrenching. On “Would I Leave You,” from the same score, she turns that final “guess” into more of a threat than a multiple-choice question. After so many difficult, complicated and wordy songs with daunting harmonies and patterns of semantics that break down the complexities of the joy and heartbreak in relationships, I guess it’s only natural that she includes the threadbare “Losing My Mind” and “Send in the Clowns,” but I’m tired of them both. Audiences still expect the familiar, and she finds a newborn approach that I found miraculous.
There’s so much more, but get to the Oak Room and make the journey yourself as Karen Akers teaches you something while she entertains you royally. Don’t look for all this Sondheim in Oshkosh. It’s too esoteric for some audiences and too smart for the Average Joe, but just the kind of urbane, sophisticated evening you get only in New York.