DIVA TALK: A Chat with Broadway and Cabaret Star Karen Akers PLUS a Singing Baby

DIVA TALK: A Chat with Broadway and Cabaret Star Karen Akers PLUS a Singing Baby News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Singer-actress Karen Akers
Singer-actress Karen Akers Photo by Heather Sullivan

KAREN AKERS

Throughout the past two decades, singer-actress Karen Akers has received international acclaim for her cabaret and concert evenings, which often feature an eclectic mix of songs in English, French, Italian and German. Akers, who possesses a rich, powerful contralto, also regularly performs the works of up-n-coming composers. In fact, she was one of the first to champion the songs of Broadway composer-lyricist Craig Carnelia, offering definitive versions of his ballads "I Met a Man Today," "The Picture in the Hall" and "Flight." Now, the stunning chanteuse turns her attention to standards in a new show, which premiered this past Tuesday evening at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room. Entitled Time After Time, Akers — backed by musical director Don Rebic on piano — will perform her program through May 15 at the Manhattan nightspot. Cabaretgoers can expect to hear Akers wrap her velvety tones around such classics as "If I Were a Bell," "How Long Has This Been Going On?," "It Never Was You," "Why Was I Born?," "Falling in Love with Love" and two Sondheim gems, "Send in the Clowns" and Passion's "Loving You."

It's an especially busy time for Akers, whose Broadway credits include the original companies of Nine, for which she was Tony-nominated, and Grand Hotel. She has also just finished recording her latest solo disc — her eighth — which will be released on DRG Records in early June. Entitled "If We Only Have Love," the new recording features tunes from Akers' much-praised "Theatre Songs" program, which she debuted for New York audiences last spring. The CD will include her two Nine show-stoppers, "Be On Your Own" and "My Husband Makes Movies," as well as Jacques Brel's "My Childhood," medleys from Chess ("I Know Him So Well"/"Anthem") and West Side Story ("Somewhere"/"I Have a Love"), the Fantasticks' "Try to Remember" and Baby's "Patterns."

I recently had the chance to chat with Akers about her new cabaret program, the upcoming CD and revisiting Maury Yeston's Nine. That brief interview follows:

Question: Last year's show, Theatre Songs, was such a success for you. What was that experience like?
Karen Akers: It was so positive, I guess, that we've made a CD. [Laughs.] It's not an exact replica of Theatre Songs, the show that we did, because that show was then taken out on the road — we expanded it, and it went into concert shape. And, for a listening experience, we've reduced it to the best for the ear and the most essential and, really, the loveliest [tunes]. We didn't include things like 'But Alive' because I didn't feel that that was a listening experience; it's more of an immediate, live, visual experience — it's more fun in live performance.

Q: What other songs were added for the recording?
KA: The new CD is called "If We Only Have Love." It includes, obviously, that title song, which is the last song on the CD. We had recorded "If We Only Love" in London, and we had recorded "Sleeping Bee" and "Try to Remember," which came from the collection the year before, and I'd never recorded it. Those were added, and then we open [the CD] with "Patterns." Opening with "Patterns" was really Hugh Fordin's idea at DRG. He just thought that was such a great way of getting people's attention. Then comes "Sleepin' Bee," which is softer and takes you back to the beginnings of things. Then "Try to Remember"; "My Childhood," another Brel; and "Send in the Clowns." "Send in the Clowns" was added; that was part of the expanded version of Theatre Songs when we went on the road.

I was sort of longing to add something more familiar to people. Because ["Send in the Clowns"] had become so familiar, it was let go for awhile and you didn't hear it anywhere, and I thought it had been neglected a bit in the last ten years, so I wanted to do it again. It's a great song, and it's beautiful. I experimented with that song. Just a couple of times I did the additional lyrics that Sondheim had written for Barbra Streisand, and I cut them out because what I figured out is audiences are so smart. The additional lyrics just sort of spell it out for people who aren't listening, I guess. [Laughs.] I can understand Barbra's desire to lengthen the song because it is so beautiful, and if you can have a lyric that is so much on the money, so to speak, it says exactly what the song is saying, but for me, it was just a little too to the point.

I love [Sondheim's] lyrics. In the new show I'm doing one of his songs that I think is probably the most extraordinary lyric in terms of its naked quality. It's so present, so complete, so naked, so unguarded. It's called "Loving You" from Passions. I'm doing it twice as bookends to "Why Was I Born?" . . . I'm going to have to do [the song] another 50 times at home in order to collect myself. The other day I was just a puddle [at rehearsal]. When you're working on material like this, it tends to pry you open. Talking about wearing your heart on your sleeve, I feel like I'm having open heart surgery. [Laughs.] You're so naked, and I don't understand the mechanics of this, I just know how it feels. That's fine for the exploration and the experimenting of a rehearsal period. But once I'm in front of an audience, I don't want it to be mine anymore. I want it to be so free and fluid, and yes, I'm present, absolutely, but I want to give it away. I want it to be the [audience's] to experience, so I'm not holding on to any of it.

Q: Each year you come up with a new collection of songs . . .
KA: Yes, this show is entirely new. I have sung "Send in the Clowns" in the past, and there's a Gershwin I have sung in the past, "How Long Has This Been Going On?," but I'm doing a new lyric that Audrey Hepburn sang in "Funny Face."

Q: Do you find it difficult finding new songs each year?
KA: Not to find them. Finding isn't the issue. I have a library that's pretty extraordinary, plus I have a resource here in town and a resource in San Francisco. Here in town it's Michael Levine, who is an angel, and in San Francisco it's Bob Grimes. If I can't find something, they're only too happy to come to my assistance, which is heaven. I'm very grateful. Funny, this year I didn't press Bob Grimes with anything out in San Francisco, but I'm sure I talked to Michael. I visited Michael recently, and I think it was [for] a song that I then had to cut [from the show]. It was painful. I have a director whom I adore—his name is Richard Niles, and he teaches theatre. If you've whittled down [your song list] from 60-70 songs, and you whittle it down to 24 or 25 songs, and then you have to whittle it again. And, you think you're doing really well getting it down to 20. Then comes the moment that is so painful. I think I got it down to 19. The Algonquin wants you to have a show that is really an hour, an hour-five tops. And, so my dream was to do a show where I didn't talk, but I can't do that in cabaret. It's not considered very friendly. [Laughs.] As is the case with most of these songs, really, they speak so eloquently for themselves that it requires very little for me in terms of chatter. I'm much better with a lyric anyway, but I'm going to try to keep talking to a minimum so that I get to do as much music as possible.

Q: Do you find it difficult to let go of songs that you've done previously?
KA: Yes, it kills me. That state of mind lasts only until I have made some choices for the new show. It's like some might say [about] having another lover. You can't bear the thought of separation, but the minute you're in bed with someone else, it's gone. [Laughs.] That is a strange analogy, but the minute I start to work on the new material [I can let go of the older material]. For example, this year, before I started to work on this material, I thought nothing would ever equal the excitement, the passion, the feeling of doing those songs from Nine — it was so rich, and nothing could possibly come close. And now I can't wait to be doing the new show!

Q: Tell me about your new program.
KA: It's called Time After Time, and these are songs that have the most extraordinary shelf life. When they first arrived, they spoke to more than one generation at a time. They spoke to everybody. It was how people learned about life and love — love that's won, love that's lost, love that's nothing but yearning. Everything came in the popular music of the day. And, today, not only is the music scene so fragmented that you no longer even know what certain kinds of music are called, but there's a channel for the 14-18 year olds and another for the 18-21 and something else for 22 25. This isn't what music was ever intended to be I don't think. So, Time After Time is songs that are timeless, really.

Q: I remember when I talked to you last year, it was right before you were going back to see the revival of Nine. I wonder what that experience was like for you.
KA: Well, it was fascinating. I will be honest and say that I missed our version, of course. I felt that that was so extraordinary and special and original. I liked, physically, some of the aspects of the new one. I thought that Antonio Banderas had a lovely voice and did well by the songs. And then there were aspects that I didn't like as much and I didn't think were as right. But, Tommy Tune, I think I said this last year — Tommy told me to think of it as Picasso and Matisse, and he's right. It was two completely different visions. I saw [book writer] Arthur Kopit the very same night, and [composer] Maury [Yeston], and Arthur just said, "Apples and oranges, my dear."

Q: Will the Nine songs be on your new CD?
KA: Oh yes. I wouldn't have the CD without them. And now people can hear them, and I'm not on my back having come from the chiropractor unable to move my head [as I was during the original cast recording session of Nine] . . . Today people listening to the new CD will really know Luisa Contini.

Q:Take me through the process of working on a new song to your collection. How do you approach and prepare a song for performance?
KA: Sometimes I never hear the song I'm going to be doing. I don't think I've ever heard anyone sing "Why Was I Born?" When I saw Passion, I heard "Loving You" once through only. . . I guess the first thing I do is make friends with the song. I go to the keyboard, and I hear the melody, and I try and find a key for me. And I show it to [musical director] Don [Rebic] or I tell him I'm interested. I get hold of sheet music if I haven't got it already, and then we go to work on it. It's a lengthy [process]. It involves writing out the lyrics, maybe a couple times before it goes into my final notebook. And just doing it. We work on it, we find the right key. That may change once or twice, and then we go to work.

Q: Do you think you'll be taking this new show around the country?
KA: Oh, I certainly hope so. I think this show has the capacity to reach a much, much wider audience than anything I've done in the past because the element of familiarity is very strong.

[Karen Akers will play Tuesday-Thursday evenings at 9 PM with late shows on Fridays and Saturdays at 11:30 PM. There is a $50 cover charge for all shows as well as a $50 (Thursday, Friday and Saturdays at 9 PM) or $20 (all other performances) minimum. The Algonquin Hotel is located in Manhattan at 59 West 44th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Call (212) 419 9331 for reservations.]

BABY

Some of the best singing to be heard on any stage is currently being offered in the 20th anniversary production of Baby at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse.

I've always had a bit of a soft spot for the Maltby and Shire musical, which I first became aware of during the 1984 Tony Awards broadcast when Liz Callaway, Catherine Cox and Beth Fowler premiered the musical's Act I show stopper, "I Want It All," for television audiences. I think I tortured my family for the remainder of the summer playing that song over and over again until my mom finally agreed to take me to see the show on what would be its final day, July 1. Had the musical opened during the previous or the following seasons, it might have fared better. But 1984 was the year that brought the long-running hit La Cage aux Folles and the Stephen Sondheim masterpiece Sunday in the Park with George. Still, the musical about three couples whose lives are affected by the possibility of having a baby managed to play 241 regular and 35 preview performances.

The Paper Mill production — under the direction of Mark S. Hoebee — boasts a stellar company led by Carolee Carmello and Michael Rupert as Arlene and Alan McNally, a couple of empty-nesters in their early forties who learn they are going to be parents once again; Norm Lewis and La Chanze as Nick and Pam Sakarian, a couple in their thirties who, after years of trying, are told they have finally conceived; and Chad Kimball and Moeisha McGill, as Danny and Liz, two young college students who are also now facing the prospect of parenthood.

Sybille Pearson's book still lacks cohesion, and some of the dialogue now seems a bit dated, but the magic of Baby has always been the Maltby/Shire score, and it continues to amaze. From the upbeat opening number, "We Start Today," to the moving finale, the score offers one treat after another. And, what voices! As I've said before, Norm Lewis possesses the richest voice of any male performer on Broadway. Had "American Idol" been around 15 years ago, Lewis would now be an international star — that it wasn't is the theatre's gain. Whether he's singing "Baby, Baby, Baby," "At Night She Comes Home to Me" or the Act II duet "With You," his lush baritone is a delight. And, he and La Chanze — she of the beautiful smile and voice — have the most palpable chemistry of any of the three couples.

Then there is Carolee Carmello, who can do no wrong onstage. Blessed with an apparently limitless belt, Carmello's focused performance is the anchor of this Baby, and she makes all her onstage moments count. She is at once comic, touching and, of course, vocally astounding. The second-act ballad "Patterns," which was cut from the original Broadway run, has been restored to the score, and Carmello's delivery is riveting. Tony Award winner Michael Rupert also offers exemplary work, scoring both vocally and acting wise.

But it is the three women — Carmello, La Chanze and McGill — who provide one of the most thrilling moments of the show when they exclaim in the doctor's waiting room, "I Want It All." The trio belts the Maltby-Shire show stopper with gusto, and the sound of their three voices singing simultaneously is especially exciting. Maltby has updated the lyric slightly, adding references to Althea Gibson, Tina Turner and Angela Davis.

At the third preview, Chad Kimball and Moeisha McGill were still finding their way into their roles, though their singing was virtually flawless. The duo get to sing several of the score's most melodic offerings, including two duets: the charming "What Could Be Better" in the first half and the rousing "Two People in Love" in the second. If Kimball has a tendency to overact, all is forgiven when he offers perhaps the finest version of "I Chose Right" I've heard. And, if McGill can't erase the memories of a fresh-faced Liz Callaway, only an ingrate would complain when she steps forward to belt out a spectacular "The Story Goes On" that builds to a soaring finale.

I'm not sure why the score affects me so much, but I found myself wiping away tears throughout the entire show, and the finale is exceptionally moving. Trust me, you don't want to miss this Baby.

[The Paper Mill Playhouse is located on Brookside Drive in Millburn, NJ. Tickets, priced $30-$67, are available by calling (973) 376-4343. For more information visit www.papermill.org.]

IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: Fiddler on the Roof's Alfred Molina and Side Show's Alice Ripley will join forces this month for a benefit for The Acting Company. On April 19 the duo will perform Standup Shakespeare at the 45 Bleecker Street Theater at 7 PM. The evening will feature a mix of song and story that "plays fast and loose with Shakespeare's verse — timeless language set to jazz, baroque, samba and gospel rock." Ray Leslee has composed the music for the benefit with a book by Kenneth Welsh. Casey Biggs directs. Tickets for Standup Shakespeare are priced $40 and $65 and are available by calling (212) 258-3111. A reception with the cast and the director will follow the performance. . . . Original Into the Woods co-star Robert Westenberg and Baby's Martin Vidnovic have joined the line-up for the popular Broadway By the Year concert series. The April 19 concert at Town Hall will pay tribute to the musicals that opened on The Great White Way in 1949. As previously announced, the 8 PM concert will feature the talents of Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager, the recent Never Gonna Dance stars who provided one of the show-stopping moments at last month's Broadway by the Year concert. They will be joined by Tony Award winner Karen Ziemba, Jane Eyre's Marla Schaffel, The Producers' Cady Huffman, Nightlife Award winner Lennie Watts and MAC Award winner Scott Coulter. Urinetown's Jeff McCarthy has withdrawn from the concert. Created and hosted by cabaret critic Scott Siegel, the evening will feature songs from South Pacific, Miss Liberty, Touch and Go, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Lost in the Stars. Concertgoers can expect to hear such tunes as "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," "Some Enchanted Evening," "Younger Than Springtime" and "This Had Better Be Love." Show time is 8 PM. Tickets for Broadway By the Year: 1949 are priced at $45 and $37.50 and are available by calling (212) 307-4100 or (212) 840-2824. Town Hall is located at 123 West 43rd Street. Visit www.the-townhall-nyc.org for more information. . . . LML Music, the L.A. based record company dedicated to preserving the work of cabaret artists, will present a month of performances at the famed Gardenia Room under the direction of David Galligan. Through April 10, Lee Lessack, Brian Lane Green and John Boswell will offer Three Men and a Baby...Grand. The acclaimed concert program debuted at the Gardenia in 1998 and features solos, duets and trios with the three performers. On April 15, 16 and 17, original Company star Pamela Myers will present her cabaret evening at the Los Angeles nightspot. Myers' program will include tunes from her first solo album, "The Chance to Sing," as well as songs from her theatrical career. Tami Tappan Damiano, who has been seen on Broadway in Cyrano: The Musical and Miss Saigon, will take to the Gardenia stage April 22 24. She will be followed by Franc D'Ambrosio April 29-May 1. D'Ambrosio played the title role in the San Francisco production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera for six years. Having performed that role 2,600 times, he was given the title "The World's Longest Running Phantom" in 1998. The Gardenia Room is located at 7066 Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA. Show time for all concerts is 9 PM; call (323) 467-7444 for reservations. . . . On April 12 at the Friars Club, Tony-winning composer Charles Strouse will be feted by Andrea McArdle, Penny Fuller, Len Cariou, Marc Kudisch, Norm Lewis, Anna Bergman, Barbara Carroll, Eric Comstock, Jason Graae and Christianne Tisdale. Rex Reed will be the evening's master of ceremonies with musical direction by Michael Levine. Randie Levine Miller is producing the one-night-only event. Attendees can expect to hear McArdle sing "Tomorrow" and a duet of "I Don't Need Anything But You" with Annie lyricist-director Martin Charnin. Fuller will offer Applause's "One Halloween," and she will join Cariou for a duet of that musical's "One of a Kind." Cariou will also solo on the title tune from Dance a Little Closer, and Kudisch will sing Bye Bye Birdie's "One Last Kiss." Lewis will perform two Golden Boy tunes: "I Wanna Be With You" and "This Is the Life." Composer Strouse will also be on hand to present several of his classic songs as well as a preview of tunes from the Broadway-bound Marty. For more information, contact Randie Levine Miller at (212) 362-3616.

REMINDERS

Liz Callaway in Concert:

April 12-17 in Relative Harmony in Los Angeles, CA
April 23 with Jason Graae in Sutter Creek, CA
April 24-25 with Jason Graae in San Rafael, CA
May 1 in Sibling Revelry in Orono, ME
May 8 in Sibling Revelry in Purchase, NY

Patti LuPone in Concert:

Now through April 24 at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York, NY
May 5-8 in Candide with the NY Philharmonic in New York, NY
May 18-30 at the Plush Room in San Francisco, CA

Louise Pitre in Concert:

November 4 at the Brock Centre for the Arts in St. Catherines, ON
November 5 at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts in Oakville, ON
November 6 at the Dr. J.M. Ennis Auditorium in Welland, ON
November 11 at the Heritage Theatre in Brampton, ON
November 12 at the Imperial Oil Centre in Sarnia, ON
November 17 at the Markham Theatre in Markham, ON
November 20 at the Stockey Centre in Parry Sound, ON
November 21 at The Living Arts Centre in Mississauga, ON


Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching!

The company of <i>Baby</i> features (clockwise from left) Norm Lewis, Michael Rupert, Carolee Carmello, Chad Kimball, Moeisha McGill and La Chanze
The company of Baby features (clockwise from left) Norm Lewis, Michael Rupert, Carolee Carmello, Chad Kimball, Moeisha McGill and La Chanze Photo by Jerry Dalia