DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Karen Akers Plus News of Eder, Neuwirth and Baranski

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Karen Akers Plus News of Eder, Neuwirth and Baranski News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Karen Akers is back at the Algonquin.
Karen Akers is back at the Algonquin.

KAREN AKERS
Gypsy fans are in for a treat these next few months. Not only is Patti LuPone bringing her Mama Rose to City Center for a limited engagement of the classic musical July 9-29, but Karen Akers is currently offering a healthy dose of Gypsy tunes in her newest cabaret act, Simply Styne.

Akers, who is playing the intimate Oak Room of Manhattan's Algonquin Hotel through May 12, recently told me, "The medley we're doing from Gypsy is so different in [musical director] Don [Rebic] and [director] Eric [Michael Gillett]'s hands and mine. It's so different from anything that has been done with this material before I think." That medley includes "Some People," "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" and "Let Me Entertain You."

It seems highly appropriate that Akers, whose dark, lush alto has been a staple of the Manhattan cabaret scene for over two decades, should include "Let Me Entertain You" in her current act, which she says her director describes as "an attempt to look at celebrity and performance. It's a question of 'How do we hold on to our art? How do we practice our art and have a personal life at the same time?'"

Those questions are ones that strike the acclaimed singing actress profoundly, as her husband is based in France while most of Akers' career takes place in the United States. "It's interesting," the Tony-nominated star of Nine explains, "because the show sort of takes me to a crossroads where, ideally, I would be strong enough to go in either direction, so to speak, when I get to the crossroads, [but] frankly, I'm going to try and stay at the crossroads as long as I can."

Wherever those roads lead, however, Akers' legion of fans are simply content that she's now back in Manhattan, where she triumphed last season with First You Dream: The Songs of Kander & Ebb, her first show devoted to the work of a single songwriting team. "I really loved [performing that show]," Akers says, "and I made so many wonderful discoveries, not least of which is that Kander and Ebb are sort of the unsung heroes of musical theatre. I just had never imagined that they would provide me such a canvas in their music and their words. It was so much fun. And, as I told audiences later in the run," she adds with a laugh, "I had finally discovered the value of a happy song. I really had a wonderful time doing their material." Akers is equally excited about her all-Styne program. "To be honest," she says, "I think this show is going to top [the Kander and Ebb show]. I'm so excited, and this is the first time that I've worked with [Eric Michael Gillett]. I can't imagine a better director. He's just fantastic. It helps that he is also, himself, a wonderful actor." In fact, Akers says that Gillett has her digging deeper into her material than ever before. "I thought I'd come to some understanding a couple of years ago, [when] I said to people, 'This show's really hard, and I have to focus like a laser beam.' And it felt that way at the time, but this time I think, 'Oh, man. I didn't know what I was talking about!' Now I understand what it means to really have to focus, to really have to concentrate, and to simply be — and the difference between 'being' and 'performing.'"

When asked how she sorted through Styne's immense catalog of tunes, Akers replies, "Well, I had a book. And Don and I had looked at some things, but then Eric's suggestions started pouring in. I fought for certain things, but he wanted to shape the show in a particular way. So, I didn't get all my wish list, but I did get what I felt were the most important things. He had songs that I wouldn't have gone near in a million years! Particularly, for example, some of the Gypsy things — I wouldn't have touched them. . . . There's [also] a lot of uptempo stuff in the show and a lot of fun things and some wonderful monologues that Eric and I wrote together that are truly fun. There's no extraneous sort of chatter. Any talking, any patter, happens within the songs. It's a very different approach. . . . It feels so right, and that's how I know that this has gotta be good."

Among the songs that did make it into the show, those that Akers will bring to full life, are a potent mix of well-known tunes ("Just in Time," "Time After Time," "The Music That Makes Me Dance," "Long Before I Knew You," "I'll Walk Alone," "The Party's Over," "Make Someone Happy, "People") and interesting rarities ("Fireworks," "You Are Woman, I Am Man," "Ten Thousand Four Hundred and Thirty Two Sheep," "Killing Time," "Absent Minded Me" and "Winter Was Warm").

While assembling her new show, Akers also had the chance to visit with cabaret veteran Margaret Whiting, who is currently recovering from some recent health problems. "Margaret was always impressed by [Styne's] utter flexibility," Akers says, "'What, you don't like this? Okay, give me 15 minutes, and you'll have a brand-new song.' . . . She's so eager to come and see the new show. She loves Don very much, and she's loved me for years. She said, 'You know, I always said if she could just . . .' And, she couldn't seem to find the words because she didn't want to insult me. And I said, 'You mean, loosen up and not take herself so seriously?' And she laughed and said, 'Yes.'"

As for future plans, Akers says she would love to record both her Kander and Ebb and Styne programs and is planning to further develop the Styne recital. "We already know four or five songs we'd like to expand this show with and do it in a theatre. I know I'm going to be at [The Music Center at] Strathmore June 8. It's a new performing arts center in Bethesda. . . and I'm going to do an expanded version of Simply Styne."

But, for now, Akers is enjoying her eighth consecutive stint at the Algonquin, singing the songs of Tony winner Styne, who Akers says, surprised her with not only "the variety of his music, but the utter singability, too."

[Karen Akers will perform Simply Styne through May 12 at the Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th Street. Show times are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 9 PM and Fridays and Saturdays at 9 and 11:30 PM. There is a $60 cover for all shows plus a minimum. Call (212) 419-9331 for reservations.]

DIVA TIDBITS
Linda Eder will bring a new concert act to Feinstein's at the Regency in May. Entitled This Time Around, the former Jekyll & Hyde star will play the posh venue May 1-12 where she will be joined by musical director John Oddo. The Feinstein's engagement will coincide with the release of Eder's new recording, which is simply titled "Linda Eder's Greatest Hits." Rhino Music will release the disc, which features selections from her recording career, and will be available exclusively at Barnes & Noble or online at bn.com. The Feinstein's season will also feature Donny Osmond (April 24-28), Peter Gallagher (May 15-June 2), Michael Feinstein (June 5-16) and Mary Wilson (June 19-30). Feinstein's at the Regency is located in Manhattan at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street. For reservations call (212) 339-4095 or visit feinsteinsattheregency.com or TicketWeb.com.

Tony Award winner Bebe Neuwirth, who ends her return Chicago engagement April 22, will host a May 21 seminar at the Actors' Fund of America's Aurora Residence on West 57th Street. Entitled "Healing the Dancer," the seminar will feature a panel of experts: an orthopedic surgeon, a kinesiologist, a physical therapist and nutritionist, and a chiropractor. The seminar has been designed by Neuwirth in conjunction with the Actors' Fund in order to help support the dance community. In a statement singer-actress-dancer Neuwirth said, "As dancers, we are good at dealing with the aches and strains associated with our profession. Sometimes, though, we get an injury or develop a chronic problem that knocks us off our feet. Last year I had hip replacement surgery. It came after several years of physical therapy, arthroscopic surgery, and excruciating pain. Add to that the emotional stress of not being able to dance and not wanting people to know about my condition — and I think you understand what that prison is like. After the replacement I recognized how extremely lucky I was to have a great doctor and great support from the few people with whom I shared my secret. And so I'd like to create a support system for other dancers." To register for the 4-6 PM seminar, e-mail dancers@actorsfund.org or call (212) 221-7300, ext. 261.

Abbie Osman, who was a standby for the title role in the West End revival of Evita, will join Alasdair Harvey and Josie Walker for the upcoming London production of Side by Side by Sondheim, which will play a limited engagement at The Venue beginning April 26. The show will also boast a cast of rotating narrators, including Les Dennis, Christopher Cazenove, Barry Cryer and Angela Rippon. The 12-week run will feature direction by Hannah Chissick and musical staging by Adam Cooper, who was Tony-nominated for his work in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake. Performances will play through July 14. The Venue is located at 5 Leicester Place in Leicester Square, London. Tickets, priced £20-£40, are available by calling 0870 899 3335 or by visiting www.seetickets.com. Tony Award winner Christine Baranski, who was back on the New York stage earlier this season in Regrets Only, will join the previously announced Meryl Streep for the film version of the international hit musical Mamma Mia! It was confirmed earlier this week that Baranski will be Tanya to Streep's Donna Sheridan. The cast, now in London to pre-record the film's soundtrack, will also feature Julie Walters, Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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