No, she won’t sing “New York, New York” — not even in French. But during her six-week residence at the Oak Room, where the elegant ambience suits her worldly style, Karen Akers will take the showtunes of John Kander and Fred Ebb to places they’ve never been before, at least not in their brash Broadway lifetimes. Looking inward for inspiration, the sultry chanteuse plucks pages from the Kander & Ebb songbook and redefines them for a crowd of sophisticates who never realized until now that happiness can really hurt.
If there’s a secret to the special insight Akers brings to the theatrical music idiom of Kander & Ebb — a challenge she acknowledges as “very new and quite different for me” — it has to do with perspective.
Looking like a morsel of melted-down candy in a caramel pantsuit with a ribbon-laced bustier, and smiling that high-wattage smile of hers, she launches into what appears to be a feel-good medley of “Walking Among My Yesterdays,” “The Happy Time” (both from “The Happy Time”) and “Familiar Things” (from “The Rink”). But in her meditative delivery, it soon becomes clear the warm and happy times being recalled are long-gone pleasures that now exist only in memory.
That worldly perspective darkens considerably the color of songs like “Isn’t This Better” (from “Funny Lady”) and “My Own Space” (“The Act”), originally written for characters who had yet to find their way to that depth of understanding. And when applied to “Sorry I Asked,” a little-known song of heartbreak and betrayal that’s the true find of the evening, that wised-up insight leaves no room for misunderstanding.
As a contralto with uncommon dramatic depth, Akers is the perfect match for Kander & Ebb, whose narrative songs are like miniature plays that need actors to give them life — and not necessarily the actors who originated them. There’ll be no argument on that one after hearing what Akers mines from a song as familiar as “Maybe This Time,” from “Cabaret.”
But aside from the technical affinities, so confidently displayed under the directorial guidance of Richard Niles and in the company of supportive musical director Don Rebic, Akers seems to have a natural tropism for the theme of beauty under siege that keeps surfacing in Kander & Ebb material.
By the end of the show, when the singer gives herself up to the scenes of fading magic in “First You Dream” (“Steel Pier”) and “Colored Lights” (“The Rink”), she makes it all feel like a dream we’re all dreaming for the first time.