The Cabaret Series at NJPAC's Chase Room continues in grand fashion. On Saturday, Karen Akers, who inaugurated the series in 2002, returned with her current show Time After Time featuring, as she informs us, "timeless songs about feelings."
It is a pleasure to report that Akers has evolved into a totally accessible crowd pleaser. While the beauty of her voice and the intelligence of her interpretations have long been recognized, there formerly was a distinct stylization in her approach which made her seem distant and cold. These qualities are polar opposite to what I love best in cabaret. Happily, Akers has exorcised them.
Many of the songs in her current show are from the Great American Songbook. However, Akers blends in less familiar not-quite standards and quality songs of more recent vintage. Although some of her material is still in French, in this show, Akers sings mostly in English.
Visually, Akers is a symphony in burgundy. She wears a form-fitting, floor-length dress (sleeves to the elbow) with a shiny satin collar from which extends a large satiny bow resting on the left side of her bodice. The color of her outfit is a perfect match for the color of her color.
Her voice is a beautiful supple instrument, both smooth as velvet and strong. The variety and above standard intelligence of her program are evident in her first four songs. After beginning with the classic standards, "If I Were a Bell" (Frank Loesser) and "How Long Has This Been Going On?" (the Gershwins), Akers launches into the somewhat less familiar "You Are Not My First Love" (the Bart Howard song associated with Mabel Mercer) and "It Never Was You," a too little heard Weill-Anderson beauty from Knickerbocker Holiday.
With her voice fully warmed up, Akers reaches peaks of perfection with the smooth and sassy double entendre "Personality" (Burke-Van Heusen), followed by the smooth and smooth "I'm Old Fashioned" (a Kern- Mercer beauty). She keeps movin' along nicely with a disillusioned medley of "Falling in Love with Love" (Rodgers-Hart) and "I Fall in Love Too Easily" (Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn) followed by Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things," a too jaunty for cabaret farewell to a lover song.
Among several additional highlights is a striking medley of the Kern-Hammerstein "Why Was I Born?" (Sweet Adeline) and Sondheim's "Loving You" (Passion). As Akers intelligently demonstrated the connection between the lyrics of mentor and student, I was struck by the extreme beauty of the music from the woefully underappreciated Passion. It possesses a deep harmonic richness that clearly transcends the particular Kern melody with which it is here paired.
Akers tells of asking Jason Robert Brown how old he was when he wrote the brilliant and subtly complex lyric to his "Stars and the Moon." When he told her that he was 21 or 22, she was flabbergasted that one so young could so well understand a mature woman's feelings. Her gorgeous interpretation of this song put a tear in my eye. I confess that, to some extent, my response was due to the fact that I could never be a "Stars and the Moon" kind of guy.
In Time After Time, in addition to the songs, there are nice musings about the joys and heartbreak of love and the emotional needs which transcend generations. The lyrics are warmly interpreted. It's all real nice. A small caveat: until near the end, the talk tends to be generic. More personal revelations about what makes Karen Akers tick would further enhance her already high level of appeal.
Akers concludes her Time After Time program by wrapping her audience up in the smooth, warm cocoon of the beautiful Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn song whose title she has borrowed. Of the several encores which she then sings to a most appreciative audience, the highlight is a powerful version of "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien," which is sung with such power and fervor that Akers seems to be channeling the soul of Edith Piaf.
The accompaniment of pianist Tedd Firth is flawless.
Karen Akers: Time After Time was presented on November 20, 2004 at the Chase Room Cabaret of the New Jersey Center Performing Arts Center, One Center Street, Newark, NJ 07102. Box Office: 800-466-5722; online www.njpac.org.
Next at the Chase Room: Saturday, December 11, 2004 - Karen Mason.