When my teeth are at rest in a glass by my bed/and my hair lies somewhere in a drawer… Karen Akers begins. Her expression? Edward Gorey-like distress. Her testimony? Sincere. Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller’s “Begin Again” illuminates the heart and soul of a show the performer has radically reworked. Sharing current resolve to participate and thrive (in life) against the odds, Akers offers her most contemporary presentation to date. The song, unexpectedly arranged with dark, Weimar piano, has real vigor. “My teeth are my own, my hair is my own and almost it’s real color,” she assures us grinning.
Those of you who still think of Akers as irrefutably highbrow are in for a treat. (This limited run show should be produced elsewhere.) Before our eyes, she grows looser; devil-may-care, mischievous, disgruntled, as well as inhabiting the familiar (to her) realms of elegant sang-froid, wrenching resignation, and heart-skipping joy (which seems full to bursting tonight.) We’re privy to both ends of the spectrum – welcoming of a lighter side and new perspective on a complicated past.
During Shel Silverstein’s “I’m Checkin’ Out” (of this heartbreak hotel), those endless arms swing wide as the artist playfully creates a horn sound in her puffed cheek. A haunting “Reynosa” (Amanda McBroom) blows in warm with similar country western feel. Eyebrows rise, knees slightly bend. Wistful focus is complete. Between verses, it’s as if she really sees a prairie. MD/pianist Alex Rybeck contributes appealing back-up vocal. Akers’ voice tonight is not just assured, but as expansive as it’s been in years.
You may never hear Leon Rosselson’s very funny “Conversation On A Mobile (phone)” elsewhere. Half of almost monosyllabic miscommunication (compounded by a battery running low) requires an actress. Timing is pitch perfect; frustration palpable. “Arthur in the Afternoon” (John Kander/Fred Ebb) is jaunty, rakish and utterly charming. The vocalist is having an infectiously good time. She makes the song tickle.
Folksy “Stars and Moon” (by then 20 year-old Jason Robert Brown) presents a young woman who turns down the moon in favor of yachts and champagne. Its foreseeable, romantic arc finds our heroine regretting her choice. Where some singers evoke sympathy, this one burrows past, to empathy.
In Rybeck, Akers has found a symbiotic collaborator. When she pauses, there’s a lingering note or gauzy bridge, whisper is met by shadows; when emphatic, Rybeck bolsters-yet not underneath. Embroidery is evocative, never distracting. Exuberance sweeps the two musicians into a dance with indistinguishable lead.
From her Broadway appearance in Maury Yeston’s Nine, Akers offers “My Husband Makes Movies.” Here’s Louisa again as if she never left – strong, sad, ardent, bemused, wrestling with her feelings, flaring and dimming in front of paparazzi. Overwhelmed, she turns her back- which visibly stiffens with habitual aplomb. “Thank you very much, Mrs. Contini,” Rybeck says representing the newsmen. Wow.
To my mind, the show’s highlight is another eclectic choice, Stephen Sondheim’s “Water Under the Bridge.” Written for a Barbra Streisand film that never got made, Akers calls the lengthy storysong “an anthem for the openhearted neurotic.” Here comes love/What I’ve been dreading…I first heard the vocalist perform this years ago at The Algonquin and identify her with the song much as I identify Marilyn Maye with “Guess Who I Saw Today.” Some versions are iconic. Tonight’s interpretation seems even more wrenchingly personal than the one I recall. Difficult emotional (and musical) push/pull make performance a high wire act. I imagine it exhausting. Akers is passionate about challenging herself. This show is both vivid and mouthwatering.
Hallmark French numbers include “Non, Je Regrette Rien” (Michel Vaucaire/Charles Dumont) in which the gladiatorial Akers strips herself psychologically bare and a spiritual rendition of “Somewhere”/ “Un Pays Pour Nous” (Leonard Bernstein/ Stephen Sondheim.) “We live in dangerous, difficult times and I know many of us are looking for ways to respond. Song for me is an act of love and hope.” The statement is empirically true.
All quotes are Karen Akers
Photos by Maryann Lopinto
Karen Akers: Time Flies
MD/Piano- Alex Rybeck
September 22, 2017
NEXT- September 28-30 Christine Andreas: Love is Good
October 14: Mark Nadler – Cole Porter After Dark AND
Mark Nadler’s Happy Birthday Beach Party
The Beach Café
1326 Second Ave. at 70th Street