I've been an admirer of Karen Akers' singing for years. It was during junior high school when my mother called me into the TV room to watch a repeat broadcast of "Presenting Karen Akers," the first of two Akers concerts filmed for television. Her voice was unlike any other I had heard — a rich, dark, velvety, vibrato-filled tone that cried with emotion. Over the years, I've seen the stunning chanteuse perform in concert at a plethora of venues: several times at the now-closed Ballroom in Chelsea, twice at the also departed Rainbow & Stars, her Boston concert debut and a by-demand repeat engagement at the same hall, one grand performance at the 92nd Street Y and one cabaret evening at the Algonquin's Oak Room, where she will open a month-long gig on April 30. When it comes to interpreting a song, Akers is a true craftsman; she is meticulous in her preparation, and she always manages to find the heart of each song. She is also one of the few performers who records equally well, and for those of you who have not heard Akers' gorgeous, full tones, I would suggest checking out one (or more) of her CDs, which include "Presenting Karen Akers," "In a Very Unusual Way," "Unchained Melodies," "Just Imagine," "Under Paris Skies," "Live from Rainbow & Stars" and her latest release, "Feels Like Home."
This past week I had the chance to chat with Akers, who also starred in the original Broadway companies of Nine — she earned a Tony nomination and a Theatre World Award for her work as Luisa Contini — and Grand Hotel. Though on vocal rest due to a strained vocal chord, Akers spoke — softly — about her Broadway work, her upcoming Algonquin run and her passion for music and the theatre.
When asked about how she strained her voice, Akers explains that "I just worked too hard. I overdid. We rehearsed on Saturday about four hours and Sunday about five. And, my sister came on Sunday with a friend of hers who is an acting coach. I wanted to work on a couple of things . . . and it became a performance, but without a microphone." No doubt, however, that Akers' chords will be in their usual glorious shape when she begins her third lengthy engagement at the Algonquin Hotel on April 30. Akers, who spends much of her time searching for and collecting interesting, colorful songs, is excited about her newest show. "It's a wonderful collection, I think. It's really a special collection. I love everything I've chosen. What kills me is having to let go of certain songs. But, I made a bigger break than usual this time, and nearly everything is brand new." Two of these songs are new works from Kathy King Wouk, a composer who began sending Akers material in 1993. Two of Wouk's songs particularly clicked with Akers. "One of the songs, in particular, I think should be a classic. It's just gorgeous. It's called 'You Left Too Soon.' Her other one ['When Love Speaks to You,' which is also the title of Akers' show] is very different in character. It's a driving sort of song in a very lyrical kind of way, about passion, physical passion — sort of a wave that washes over you, kind of an unusual song. I'm too close to all of this right now to really make good sense of it," Akers admits, "I'm sort of going with instinct very much at this point."
Akers' new act will also include tunes from Stephen Sondheim ("Ah, But Underneath," the song the Broadway composer penned for the London production of Follies), Jacques Brel (the stirring anthem "If Love Were All"), The Fantasticks (both "They Were You" and "Try to Remember" in honor of the closing of this long-running phenomenon) and even a tune from pop composer Billy Joel, "She's Always a Woman." The tune might seem an odd choice for the regal Akers, but the singer has often included pop tunes in her act — Joel's "Matter of Trust," James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" — and her interpretations tend to shed new light and bring a greater depth to these contemporary hits. Akers explains that she's including the Joel song because "in this collection I have two other songs about women, three very different characters. Women tend to adore each other. When they're friends, they're really good friends. We give each other a lot, and I think there was much that just rang a bell with me the minute I heard Billy Joel [sing the tune] . . . I think the song is partly dedicated to my daughter-in-law, whom I adore." Akers is also partial to the Algonquin, relating that she and her grandfather used to sit in the lobby of the famed hotel. "We would sit there and talk about everything under the sun while he taught me to drink Scotch," Akers laughs, "so I have very warm feelings about the Algonquin. The whole place is tinged with the romance of New York. I just enjoy being in that room. I'm very happy to have a home there." Akers' home base is actually now London, where husband Kevin Power works, but the performer insists that she is and will always be a New Yorker at heart. "New York, in a very real way, is home of one kind. I love it. My audience in New York has been so good to me," she adds. "I would never dream of giving it up while I'm alive and singing. I'm grateful for them."
Akers, who was recently awarded a MAC Board of Directors Award, also spoke a bit about the upcoming revival of Nine, the musical that marked her Broadway debut and garnered her a Tony Award nomination. When asked whether it seems possible that the show's revival will mark the musical's 20th anniversary, Akers comments, "Oh, it doesn't, but I love their choices of people. The person playing my role is Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. I've always thought that she was a very special performer. She's actually got a very sweet voice. And, Raul [Julia]'s part is being played by Antonio Banderas. I don't know about his singing, but I imagine that if they chose him, he can sing. It should be interesting. I'm going to sneak in some day [and see it.]." And, what about getting Akers back on the boards? "Only if and when we come back to live here. Then, of course, I would love to."
I also asked Akers about any particularly memorable nights she has had as a performer, and one evening in Nine came to her mind. "I had done 'Be On Your Own' and walked down the podium, over to stage left, down the steps, all the way up the theatre, and the audience did not a move a muscle, not a pin, not a breath, nothing . . . and I collapsed in our stage manager Charlie's arm. I was part Luisa at that point, I wasn't really me. Charlie swept me into his arms, carried me upstairs and said, 'I hope you know that was beyond applause.' . . . He proceeded to go on about his father, who was an incredible preacher, who used to make people wet their pants. [Laughs.] He was trying to make me laugh, pull me out of the emotion. That was an incredible moment. I had it only one other time when I felt very powerful [onstage]. I think I had come back from a vacation, and I decided, 'Damn, I'm gonna make that happen again,' [laughs] where the audience wouldn't applaud because what was happening was just too intense, they were too focused. They were holding their arms around me practically. It happened one other time, that's it."
And a final question: "When people hear the name Karen Akers, what would you like them to think?" Akers' response: "Emotion set to music." How perfect.
**From April 30-May 25, Akers will play Tuesdays-Thursdays at 9 PM at the Algonquin (59 West 44th Street) and Fridays and Saturdays at 9 and 11:30 PM. There is a $50 cover charge and a $15 food/drink minimum. Reservations may be made by calling (212) 419-9331. Don't miss the opportunity to see one of cabaret's finest.
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK Two former Maria Callases, Tony winners Patti LuPone and Zoe Caldwell, will join George Hearn for an all-star concert presentation of A Little Night Music this August in Illinois. The Stephen Sondheim work is part of the annual Ravinia Festival at the acclaimed Illinois theatre and continues the Festival's five-year salute to the legendary composer. A Class Act's Lonny Price, who directed LuPone and Hearn in the critically hailed concert version of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, will helm this production, and Grant Gershon will conduct the orchestra. La LuPone will star as Desiree Armfeldt in the concert version of the musical, which plays the Festival Aug. 22-24. Hearn, who nabbed a Tony for his work in La Cage aux Folles, will portray Fredrik Egerman, and Zoe Caldwell, who was last on Broadway as Maria Callas in Terrence McNally's Master Class — LuPone eventually succeeded her in the Tony-winning drama — will play Madame Armfeldt. The cast also boasts former Capeman star Sara Ramirez as Petra, John McVeigh as Henrik Egerman and Hollis Resnik as Countess Charlotte Malcolm. The Hugh Wheeler-Sondheim musical will play the Ravinia Festival's 3,300 seat Pavilion Theatre, which is located in Highland Park, IL. Tickets range from $10 (lawn seats) to $75 and may be purchased by calling the theatre's box office at (847) 266-5100 . . . Tickets are now on sale for Bernadette Peters' eagerly awaited June 19 concert at Radio City Music Hall. Peters' evening of song will mark the two-time Tony winner's solo concert debut at the legendary Manhattan hall. The former Annie Get Your Gun star will offer an evening of Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes, including songs from her new Angel Records CD, "Bernadette Peters Loves Rodgers & Hammerstein." The one night-only event will also include five additional Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes not found on the recording as well as an original overture written by Jonathan Tunick, who will conduct the orchestra. Peters promises that there will be some wonderful surprises as well. Richard Jay-Alexander, the acclaimed director who helmed her solo Carnegie Hall concert debut, will also direct the Radio City performance. The Queens-born Peters recently had this to say about her upcoming night at Radio City: "I'm a native New Yorker, so it has always been my dream to perform at Radio City Music Hall. It's one of the most gorgeous, architecturally grand theatres this fabulous city has to offer, and it is such an integral part of New York's rich cultural history. I'm thrilled to perform Rodgers and Hammerstein's amazing songs in this historic music hall as 'June is bustin' out all over' and the Richard Rodgers Centennial is in full swing." Tickets, which are priced at $44.50, $49.50, $64.50 and $79.50 (including the $4.50 per ticket facility charge), are available by calling TicketMaster at (212) 307-7171 or by logging on to www.radiocity.com. . . . CenterStage, the Cultural Arts division of the Osher Marin JCC, has announced its 2002-2003 concert line-up. Davis Gaines and Lisa Vroman, who opened the San Francisco production of The Phantom of the Opera and who also appeared in the Patti LuPone-George Hearn Sweeney Todd in Concert, will perform at the Center on Nov. 2 and 3. Cabaret chanteuse Andrea Marcovicci will offer her newest act, "At Long Last, Cole," which celebrates the music and lyrics of Cole Porter, on Jan. 18 and 19. Christine Ebersole, who garnered a Tony Award for her work in the current revival of 42nd Street, is scheduled for Feb. 8 and 9, and multi-octave singer Maureen McGovern—who is celebrating her 30th anniversary in show business—will close the series on March 29 and 30. Located in San Rafael, California, CenterStage is one of the Bay Area's preeminent presenters of leading performing artists. Tickets are available by calling the theatre's box office at (415) 444-8000 . . . Audra McDonald, Lillias White, Rebecca Luker, Mary Testa, Douglas Sills and Ron Raines will all perform at a May 13 Boston Pops Gala, which will salute the music of Richard Rodgers and will be taped for a July airing during the annual "Evening at Pops" PBS series. Keith Lockhart will lead the Boston Pops Orchestra at Boston's Symphony Hall in an evening that will also include a performance of "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" by the Mark Morris Dance Company. Symphony Hall is located at 301 Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, MA. Tickets are available by calling SymphonyCharge at (617) 266 1200 or (888) 266-1200. . . And, finally, Liza's back and the Beacon's got her! That is, Academy Award winner Liza Minnelli will perform seven concerts at New York's Beacon Theatre beginning May 31. Produced and directed by Minnelli's new husband, David Gest, Liza's Back! will premiere at the Beacon on May 31 and will play June 1, 3, 4, 6, 7 an 8. The evenings will feature new material by longtime Minnelli friends John Kander and Fred Ebb — of Chicago and Cabaret fame — and choreography will be supplied by Brian Thomas. Fans of the Tony-winning star of Flora, the Red Menace and The Act can expect the actress singer-dancer to belt out several of her signature hits, including "Cabaret," "New York, New York" and "Losing My Mind." Tickets will go on sale Monday, April 29 at 9 AM and can be purchased by calling the Beacon box office at (212) 496-7070 or Ticketmaster at (212) 307-7171. The Beacon Theatre is located in New York City at Broadway and 74th Street.
Betty Buckley in Concert:
May 4 at the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago, IL (Benefit for Goodman Theatre)
May 11 at the Virginia Samford Theatre in Birmingham, AL
June 27-28 at the Zellerbach Theatre in the Annenberg Center of the University of Pennsylvania in PA (with Jay Leonhart — "Betty and the Bass")
June 29 at the Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay, Long Island, NY
July 7 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe, NM
Sept. 28 at the Haugh Performing Arts Center in Glendora, CA
Oct. 3-6 at the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, TX
Oct. 22-Nov. 9 at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York, NY
Nov. 16 at the Performing Arts Center of SUNY-Purchase in Purchase, NY
Dec. 6 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC
Dec. 31 at the Tilles Center at CW Post University in Glen Cove, NY
Barbara Cook in Concert:
April 18-28 at the Mohegan Sun in CT
May 14 Cook receives the New Dramatists’ Lifetime Achievement Award at the Marriot Marquis Hotel in New York, NY
May 19-20 with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA
June 5-9 and June 12-16 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theatre in Washington, DC
June 23-Aug. 26 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, NY (Mostly Sondheim)
July 5 at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts in Long Island
August 14-18 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theatre in Washington, DC
Oct. 19 at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, WA
Nov. 17 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ Maureen McGovern in Concert:
May 10 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts Gala in Houston, TX
May 17-18 "Works of Heart" Seminar in New York, NY
June 22 "Music by the Lake" in Lake Geneva, WI
June 29-Aug. 17 Dear World at Sundance Theater, Sundance, UT
July 4 at the Caramoor Center for Music & the Arts at the Venetian Theater in Katonah, NY
Aug. 7 at the Salt Lake City Jazz Festival in Salt Lake City, UT
Sept. 1-2 MDA Jerry Lewis Telethon in Los Angeles, CA
Sept. 20 - 22 Grand Rapids Symphony at DeVos Hall in Grand Rapids, MI
Sept 26-29 North Carolina Symphony, Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh, NC
Oct. 30-Nov. 3 American Music Therapy Association Conference in Atlanta, GA
Nov. 2 at the Rialto Center in Atlanta, GA
Nov. 9 at the Landmark Theater in Port Washington, NY
Nov. 19-Dec. 1 at the Plush Room in San Francisco, CA
Dec. 6 at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA
Dec. 8 at Poway Center for the Performing Arts in Poway, CA
Dec. 9 Laurie Strauss Leukemia Benefit, Carnegie Hall in New York, NY
Dec. 14 Boca Pops Big Band Series in Boca Raton, FL
Bernadette Peters in Concert:
May 17 at Harrah's in Atlantic City, NJ
June 7 at the Ravinia Pavillion in Highland Park, IL
June 19 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, NY
June 28 at the Hollywood Bowl in Hollywood, CA
July 2 at the Interlochen Center in Interlochen, MI
Aug. 30-Sept. 1 at the Morton H. Meyerson Hall in Dallas, TX
Sept. 28 at the Weidner Center in Green Bay, WI
Oct. 24 at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in Indianapolis, IN
Oct. 26 at the Kleinhans Auditorium in Buffalo, NY
Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!
—By Andrew Gans