The Oak Room At The Algonquin Hotel
59 West 44th Street
Through May 13
For music that pleases, sally forth to the Algonquin and catch the lovely chanteuse Karen Akers, looser and livelier than the reputation that precedes her, in a celebration of songwriter Jule Styne that can only be called sublime.
This cool, statuesque singer with the bangs of Louise Brooks and the basso profundo of Bea Arthur used to remind me of those sultry 40’s film noir gun molls in long gloves—like Lizabeth Scott, who drifted onstage through a maze of cigarette smoke, leaned against a column, and warbled a blue ballad between shoot-outs.
Ms. Akers is still an eyeful, but her demeanor has softened and so has her repertoire. Refreshingly absent are the dreary Jacques Brel dirges and depressing Piaf anthems. In a retro groove, she rewinds to the big-band era for such Styne evergreens as “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” “I’ve Heard That Song Before” and “Five Minutes More” (all with lyrics by Sammy Cahn). From Broadway, she slows the tempo on “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” the strippers’ hard-luck advice from Gypsy, turning it into a tribute to show-business survivors. A dynamic “People” proves there is more than one way to interpret a great song associated with another star: just sing it differently.
There are surprises, too, in the form of two stunning ballads with Bob Merrill lyrics that were new discoveries to me: “Winter Was Warm”, from a long-forgotten Mr. Magoo Christmas special, of all things, and “How Could I Know?”, a gorgeous number introduced by Angela Lansbury in Prettybelle, an ill-fated Broadway-bound stage musical that closed in Boston. Limbering up on “10,432 Sheep”, a Doris Day patter number from the movie The West Point Story, and knocking the classic two-timing revenge song “If You Hadn’t, But You Did” right out of the park, Ms. Akers dispels any doubt that she is ready for comedy roles. Pianist-arranger Don Rebick is a willing vocal accomplice and plays like a dream. Clever, warm, ingratiating and solidly entertaining, Ms. Akers celebrates Jule Styne and uncovers new layers of her own persona in the process, without removing a stitch. In or out of gloves, she’s better than ever.