She’s been labeled a contralto, but the statuesque, smoky-voiced Karen Akers sounds to me more like a polished, neon-nourished lady baritone. To demonstrate how she has changed from cool, remote goddess of ice cream in her early nightclub outings, to warm, beguiling Mother Earth in the ripeness of her maturity, this top-ranking cabaret star’s new monthlong visit to the Algonquin’s august Oak Room explores every musical mood. She calls the act “Move On,” because of all the things in the experience of life, including taxes and death, change is the one that is unavoidable.
Here are sublime songs of loss, loneliness, failure and hanging on in the face of adversity. In previous engagements, she’s focused on the songs of one or two writers at a time—Kander and Ebb, Jule Styne, etc. Now, through June 14, she’s blending some of the legends with a few newcomers whose work has been underexposed. Many treats are guaranteed. I call Ms. Akers the Queen of Obscurity—not because she’s a stranger to success but because she devotes so much time to researching, resuscitating and refurbishing lesser-known songs of great value. Sometimes the choices are mundane. To mirror the need for turning over a coin and starting a new life, cartoonist Shel Silverstein’s “I’m Checking Out” is not as good as the devastating showstopper “I’m Getting Off Here,” from the unproduced musical Jimmy Valentine, which I’ve heard from both Margaret Whiting and Gloria DeHaven. But most of the time, she hits a bull’s-eye. “The Kindest Man” by Barry Kleinbort is a heart-melting example of obscurity destined for the spotlight. And Francesca Blumenthal’s witty song “Between Men” (a girl could bide her time in worse ways) is a perfect demonstration of how to cope, with a sense of humor. It’s about a woman who’s tried E.S.T., volleyball, yoga, blackjack, sables, playing Barbie to Ken and even Zen, all “between men.” There’s a pinch of Sondheim, a dash of Lieber and Stoller, a soupçon of Amanda McBroom. And there’s a song I’ve never heard, by Kander and Ebb, called “At the Rialto,” which I can’t wait to hear again. One of the nicest things about any Karen Akers recital is the fact that she never runs out of surprises.
I also like the way she’s perfected the art of singing straight ahead, without frills and flourishes, exotic vocal booby traps or stupendous stunts. The point of “Move On” is that change begets change; we must all find the raw materials to reinvent ourselves when stress, anxiety and loss erodes our identities, and new solutions must be found. With a little help from Édith Piaf and the interlacing of poems by the Algonquin’s own Dorothy Parker, Karen Akers (sensitively accompanied by Don Rebic on piano and Dick Sarpola on bass) is moving on beautifully at the Oak Room.